Tuesday, November 29

A remedial reminder: Politics is perception

Throughout this election season, the issue of timing has come up again and again in relation to proposed tax increases in the Gunnison Valley. The concept has been a key argument made by both sides. 

Proponents of increases — whether in sales tax or property tax — have said there is no time to waste and that necessary projects will only get more expensive the longer we wait. That’s a “bottom line” sort of position that’s hard to refute, especially in inflationary times like these. No one who buys groceries or gas or building supplies or, let’s face it, just about anything, could deny the basic premise that costs are rising.

Those against also invoke the word “timing,” but have a more difficult task in making their case. While the “we-need-to-act-now” crowd relies on objective arguments, the “now-of-all-times?” folks are dependent on subjective elements like perception and what the prospect of higher taxes feels like right now.

It has become normal these days to favor figures over feelings in public debate about important decisions. Perhaps that’s simply because it’s easier to dismiss what we can’t readily quantify. Whatever the cause, I think it is a mistake — for the obvious reason that politics is always about perception. It’s always about winning the hearts and minds of people first. Wise leaders invest a lot of time and effort in doing that before striking out with only a bagful of facts, even really compelling ones. 

Wise leaders go out of their way to listen and to frame what they want to do in language that resonates with what the people — their employers, after all — are thinking and, yes, feeling. Those leaders understand that this effort had better be genuine and not just lip service.

I’m waiting to see a clear example that local elected officials know what the heck I’m talking about.

In this week’s Times, we report on a Gunnison City Council work session that took place on Tuesday to discuss next year’s budget. While the meeting lasted five hours and covered a lot of ground in the vital business of setting spending priorities for the coming year, two items stood out as newsworthy.

First was a proposed rate hike for utilities in Gunnison — 25% for water, 5% each for electricity and sewer service and 12% for trash pick up. That’s expected to add up to an average of $16.50 per month for city customers. Sure, if you put that amount in terms of how many mochas it will buy at Starbucks, it’s not hard to call it trivial.

But that misses the point. Some people have already cut mochas out of their spending habits, along with a lot of other things. The rate hikes may be absolutely necessary and justified in response to rising costs the city faces. But that doesn’t neutralize the question of how it feels to people, on top of every other price increase they are experiencing.

Which brings me to the second item — and back to the issue of timing.

Council members also discussed hiring a “sustainability coordinator” to oversee implementation of the Gunni CARES 2030: Climate Action, Resiliency and Environmental Sustainability plan adopted earlier this year. The plan was developed by two Western Colorado University Master of Environmental Management students over the past couple of years.

The conversation on Tuesday lamented a lack of “bandwidth” among existing staff to carry out the plan’s goals. It centered on whether to hire someone full time at $150,000 or part time at $81,000 per year — not whether spending anything on the new position might feel ill-timed to people in the first place. 

Part of the argument in favor? The longer we wait, the harder it will be to catch up. Timing.

To be crystal clear, I am not taking a position one way or another on the ballot initiatives currently before voters or whether hiring a sustainability coordinator is necessary right now. I’m simply suggesting that public officials should remember that politics is perception — and that they are elected to speak for the people, not at them. 

(Alan Wartes can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or publisher@gunnisontimes.com.)

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