Peoria SURE, THE TINY dot on the road map indicated that Peoria would be a small town, but driving west out of Hillsboro on Highway 22 I began to wonder just how small. In fact, I began to wonder if there really was such a town there was no evidence. Signs along the way gave the mileage to Whitney and to Meridian, in the next county over. No mention of Peoria. But before I knew it, Peoria was upon me. It jumps up out of the road with a small green sign that doesn’t bother to give the population. There is an intersection, of sorts, and two gas stations and a Presbyterian Church. You can see all that go by without breaking speed and suddenly you realize there is nothing more to it. In your rearview, you can see the little green sign that gives the coming from the other direction. Except that there is something more to it. There is West Peoria not so much a town as an idea which I found just as I was ready to turn around and go back. I was looking for Peoria because I wanted a place to conduct unscientific surveys of the public mind. Today’s topic was taxes. By some stroke of luck, this very topic seemed to be on the public agenda in West Peoria. “Taxpayers Arise!” beckoned the mobile sign just off Highway 22. The sign advertised the need for a taxpayers’ association to fight tax increases. I stopped the car. Thirty yards beyond the sign, on an overgrown lot with rusted cars and farm machinery strewn about, was a weatherbeaten old structure that asserted, in big black letters on white paint, the existence of West Peoria, Tex. Smaller lettering labelled the shack “City Hall.” A sign with an arrow pointed the way to the Mayor’s Office. Another message painted on the front said “Burros For Sale.” A few hundred yards to the east, one could see what was left of a stock car racing track. The rusted grandstands rose out from a stand of trees and longneglected undergrowth. It was apparent that the stock car races were once this place’s reason to be. Now the whole 6 MARCH 20, 1987 property was for sale or lease. A no trespassing sign said “Inquire across the street.” I did not intend to inquire across the street. A pack of vicious little dogs at least a dozen of them was raising hell and clawing at the fence, just at the distant sight of me. I would go back to town to do my inquiring. At the Downtown Peoria Bar-B-Que found two locals who nodded knowingly at the mention of the West Peoria “city hall.” They told me the owner’s name and a little about his ill-fated race track. Pull on up into his driveway, they advised, and honk the horn. And don’t get out of the car those dogs will tear your leg off if they get the chance. So I went back and honked. The dogs yapped at the fence, salivating and excited. A stone ranch house was at the center of the property, surrounded by a barnyard that was home to dozens of chickens, a few goats, ducks, cats, ponies, and burros. Presently, a hulking old man came ambling down the drive to ask what I wanted. He wore a soiled brown flatbrimmed cowboy hat and soiled work pants and a sweatshirt. I told him I wanted to talk about his taxpayers’ association, advertised on the sign across the road. “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t want my name used,” and he began talking. But it was windy and chilly so he soon proposed joining me in my car. He explained about the West Peoria “city hall.” “It was done as kinda a joke,” he said. The sign on the front that says “mayor’s office” points to the side entrance and a sign on the door says “He ain’t in,” he said, getting a laugh out of it even now. He insisted again that he not be quoted by name. “Just say ‘a character,’ ” he said, “Everybody’ll know who it is.” We will call him Billy Joe Barnwell. It seems there had been a lively debate last fall on taxes, which took place over in Hillsboro, the seat of Hill County \(which is located between Waco and Ft. pretty emotional. “I’ve got probably too many opinions,” he said. For those who want his real name, it’s on the mailbox across from his property on Highway 22. Barnwell joined the fight against an increase in the county’s property tax rate, which was required, according to county commissioners, to help pay for the indigent health care bill passed by the 1985 legislature. Because Hill County would be required to pay medical bills for the poor, commissioners increased the basic tax rate by about seven cents per $100,000 worth of assessed property value a 19 percent increase. Barnwell’s opinion was that if the county kept raising taxes, they’d all end up needing indigent care. After he put up his “Taxpayers Arise” sign many people told him they thought a taxpayers’ association should be formed but nobody wanted to actually join it, he said. So Barnwell’s tax activism doesn’t go much beyond keeping his sign on the highway these days. But the taxpayers’ alliance may yet rise. Fred Kevetter, a retired military chaplain who lives in Whitney, is currently maintaining a list of a hundred “key people” in the county for mailings on tax issues, he says, and the formation of an Association of Concerned Taxpaycame within a couple hundred votes of winning the County Judge race last fall, in which he made tax increases and county accountability the major issues. Both Barnwell and Kevetter look to C.A. Stubbs of San Antonio, the tax activist who tried to get his city to set a “spending cap” last fall, as a leading spokesman on taxes. “My views are pretty much what his are,” said Barnwell. Stubbs has addressed Hill County citizens on the doings of his group, the Texas Association of Concerned Taxpayers. The force behind this wing of tax activists, of course, is discontent with property taxes. Barnwell and Kevetter say that with the Hill County economy in such bad shape property taxes are hitting landowners who often are without much income. Barnwell said he owns about 90 acres, though he used to hold 400. He invested $400,000 on his racetrack, and went broke on it in 1977. He jokes about his hard luck. “It’s been said that if you put a cemetery in Hill County, people would quit dying,” he said. ACTUALLY, THE CEMETERY business may be the best thing going in Hill County. Mrs. Jewell Atchison Lavender, the superintendent of Peoria’s cemetery, reports that people are coming from Ft. Worth and Dallas “and all over” and having their kin buried in Peoria because the plots are cheaper than in the big cities. Several burials have taken place recently What Plays in Peoria By Dave Denison *e.441.t.t40.907 71.14M.,,’4,4,,re,o,:ne
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