It’s our job to report; it’s your job to read

Published 3:28 pm Wednesday, January 23, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

“Wherever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”Thomas Jefferson

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Newspapers fill a vital role in our democracy of watching our government’s actions and reporting those actions to the public.

But newspapers’ job is only half the recipe for creating a well-informed population that can effectively and fairly govern itself. Newspapers have a responsibility to report the news — more now than ever, that’s becoming clear at the local level. But people also have a responsibility to stay informed and read what is reported. Both steps are required in order to achieve the ideal: a government that is responsive, effective and beneficial.

It’s not enough to look at headlines and let your gut guide the rest of your assumptions. It takes effort, modesty and an open mind to understand government processes and decisions. Even at the local level, government is complex and compartmentalized.

There is no monolithic “Danville” or “Boyle County” entity responsible for all decisions. Those who do not read beyond the headlines often fall into the trap of thinking just such a unified government exists. They complain about tax increases from one government entity when a completely different government takes action to spend money. They blame any governmental body they notice for whatever problem they’re dealing with that day.

In reality, there are many different local governments, all with different purposes and goals.

City governments like Danville collect much of their tax revenue from payroll taxes and utility charges, and spend much of it on emergency services and public infrastructure. Boyle County Fiscal Court has a similar role, but the county-level government provides services for residents in unincorporated areas and those living in cities alike. The county government also includes the separate, fee-funded offices of sheriff and county clerk, among others.

Public school districts like Danville Independent and Boyle County are funded through property taxes and state and federal education dollars. Their expenditures are education-related: teachers and staff salaries, school building utilities, classroom supplies, buses, lunches — you get the idea.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau is funded by room taxes from hotels and spends its money on marketing and attracting visitors to the area.

There are “special purpose governmental entities,” such as the Economic Development Partnership, which receive public and private funding to accomplish their narrower goals, but they do not collect taxes.

There are nonprofit organizations such as the Heart of Danville, which are funded largely by government contributions but, like SPGEs, don’t collect taxes and don’t have any governmental authority to pass laws.

There are special taxing districts, such as the Boyle County Public Library, the Boyle County Cooperative Extension Service, the Boyle County Health Department and the Boyle County Fire Protection District. These districts collect property taxes on defined regions, and then provide specific services back to those defined regions, from books to firefighters.

There are also joint agencies, such as Parks & Recreation and Planning & Zoning, which are organized through interlocal agreements between city and county governments. These agencies may collect fees but no taxes; they are funded through their parent governments. They have some authority to set rules and regulations, but often their decisions can be subject to review by the parent governments.

What should you make of all this? Definitely not that local government is too complex to understand or involve yourself with. But it is certainly too complex to judge based off of just the headlines or the first couple sentences of a story.

In the age of the internet and Twitter, far too many people have come to believe that a sentence or two is all you need. That attitude is wrong and its pervasiveness is leading us down a path away from being an informed citizenry. We need to change course and start reading beyond the headlines if we want to keep our democracy strong.

Newspapers are doing the first part of the job for you — we’re collecting the information, distilling it down and turning it into easily digestible stories. It’s up to you, the readers, to do the rest.