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May 21, 2008

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By Mike Buffington

Time to find campaign issues
The three-man race for chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is one of the highest profile contests in the upcoming July 15 primary. But for the first time in many years, it lacks a key issue for debate.
That’s in part because the race is for an open seat. Incumbent Pat Bell isn’t running again. (She’s earned the right to retire from what may be the worst job in local government.)
But the lack of an incumbent in the race means there’s nobody for the candidates to attack. Generally, an incumbent is forced to defend his record against challengers. That creates a lot of grist for debate. Every word and every vote is fair game to be questioned and probed, although challengers often distort both in ways that are unfair. Still, with no incumbent to focus on, the chairman’s race of 2008 lacks that edge.
Seeking to replace Bell in the July voting are Tony Beatty, Hunter Bicknell and Ron Johnson. It’s early in the race and so far, no particular issue has emerged. Of course, there’s always discussion about taxes — every candidate always promises to lower taxes.
But between now and the election, these candidates will have to lay out their platform and tell the public what they think the issues are and what they plan to do if elected. Rather than responding to an existing issue, these candidates will have to carefully outline what THEY think.
Each of these three candidates has his own strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a quick rundown on each:

• Tony Beatty: Beatty has perhaps the highest name recognition of all the candidates, having served on the BOC for several years in the past. Beatty is also the only “native” from Jackson County in the race and has deep family roots here. That might not mean as much as it once did given the county’s growth since 2000, but it still carries some sway at the ballot box. Beatty’s biggest challenge will be to distance himself from his past tenure on the BOC. He was part of the Fletcher administration that built the new courthouse and instigated a number of other very controversial moves. During that time, Beatty was mostly politically mute and was perceived as a follower, not a leader. Now he’s asking for the top leadership position and will have to convince voters that he has both the vision and leadership skills to be the county’s chief elected officer.

• Hunter Bicknell: Although relatively new to Jackson County, Bicknell has taken the highest profile of the three candidates in the last couple of years. Bicknell is the chairman of the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority, a key position that has put him in touch with community leaders from across the county. But the position cuts both ways. Even in good times, the water authority has traditionally been controversial. Last year’s drought and the prospect of another drought this year raises its profile and puts Bicknell in the center of what could be a political storm. But Bicknell’s biggest obstacle in the race may be to overcome the perception that he’s too close to developers. Although the current economic downturn has cooled the local building market, there’s a growing populist segment that is anti-growth and anti-development. To win this race, Bicknell will have to convince voters that he isn’t a front for the development community.

• Ron Johnson: Of the three candidates in the race, Johnson has probably done the most legwork and campaigning so far. He’s everywhere. Like Bicknell, Johnson’s new to Jackson County, but he had been a member of the Sugar Hill City Council in Gwinnett County before moving to Jackson. That may or may not work to his advantage. Some believe he was too controversial in that position and opponents are already tagging him as “divisive.” But Johnson’s biggest problem may be that he and Bicknell both live in the West Jackson area and are drawing from the same pool of neighborhood voters. They could split that area, opening the door for Beatty to force a runoff. Johnson has to therefore expand his base to other areas of the county and attempt to garner more name recognition, all of which will take a lot of money. Fund raising may prove a key to his campaign.

Today, this race is a toss-up. Anybody could win. Anything could happen. Stay tuned.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

Governments should cut 2009 budgets
Local governments are facing some tough times. The economic downturn has hit government just as hard as it has most businesses.
To list just a few of the problems governments face:
•A flat tax digest from slower growth. If the county did reassess property today, the digest might even shrink due to lower real estate prices. The days of double-digit increases is over, for now.
•Declining fees from building permits and other growth-related permits.
•Flat or declining sales tax income due to lower retail sales.
•Lower water sales due to the drought, which in turn cuts into cash flow and income to the cities and county.
•Higher fuel costs. This hits all areas of government, especially with law enforcement, public safety and school busses.
•Hefty debt loads. Some of the debt had been calculated to be taken care of by continued economic expansion, but that has now slowed. The result could be a hit on existing general fund resources.
Compounding these problems is the tendency by government officials to avoid making tough decisions. Typically, governments ignore problems until they become so large they blow up and force some kind of action.
All governments are loathe to make cutbacks. Instead, they usually try to play games with the public by offering to cut some popular public service, or raise taxes. You seldom see a government make internal cutbacks, such as cutting perks for employees.
In some areas, governments are moving to raise taxes and blaming it on the economy. But for any local government to seek a tax increase in the current environment would be crazy.
In the coming weeks, most local governments will be working on and adopting budgets for 2009. Undoubtedly, most local governments will grow in their 2009 budget and employees will get raises despite the slow economy.
Such proposals may be met with a howl of protest by citizens. Every local government should have to justify every aspect of its 2009 budget proposal. Cuts should be made.
Do our local governments have the guts to do that?


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