Jackson County Opinions...

January 31, 2001

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
January 31, 2001

Losing One From The 'Greatest Generation'
We buried the last of our parents this week. Barbara's father, Joel Bernard Butts, died Sunday morning.
I'd known the man almost 30 years. We were not close, but as his health declined in the past year, I got to know him much better.
It was difficult to get him to talk about it, but like many others of his generation, my father-in-law seemed defined by his experience in World War II, where he was a tank commander in the North Africa and Italian campaigns.
His unit's mortality rate was very high, and he was one of the few officers who survived, but if he talked about his wartime experiences, most often it was about the lighter side, of mistakes made, silly orders ignored or of efforts to cope with the Army bureaucracy. Yet, it was always clear that he thought frequently about the role he played in what was perhaps America's greatest moment.
Like most of his peers in what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation," when the war was over, he came back and resumed his life, never considering his WWII experience to be extraordinary. It was something that had to be done and he, no doubt, just considered himself one of the millions who did his duty.
J.B. Butts returned from Italy, married the Army nurse he met at a picnic in North Africa, continued his career at a Monroe bank and raised two daughters. He became a community and church leader.
He died exactly one year after his wife, Florence, and he went just the way he would have preferred, suddenly. It irritated him not to be able to control things, and I think if he could have scripted his death, a sudden, massive heart attack might have been his choice. Above all, he did not wish to unnecessarily complicate the lives of his children.
His last year proved to be a blessing, because Barbara and Susan got to spend a lot of time with their father. And I, his "yard boy" for the past year or two, also got to know and understand him better.
I think of him, and those like him who rid the world of Nazi tyranny, as heroes. They answered the call to arms and kept fighting day in and day out until the job was done. They'd brave the bullets and bombs one day, only to have to do it again the next. A lot of people can face death with courage in a single incident; these men faced it day after day until they'd won the war, then came back and picked up the pieces of their lives.
"Bun's" reputation was one of sternness. It took me a couple of decades, but I slowly learned that he had a sense of humor to go with his sense of duty. In the right environment, he could spin a yarn with the best. I'll remember that sense of duty foremost: to his country in the war, to his employer and community during the prime of his life, and always to his family.
He'd served as executor of so many family members' estates, that he knew everything his daughters would face in dealing with the death, the funeral, the estate. He left full written instructions, from the clothes he was to wear to his grave to the disposition of family mementos to instructions for servicing the furnace.
They don't make men like J.B. Butts any more. We'll miss him. A lot.

The Jackson Herald
January 31, 2001

Flag is ugly, but it's time to move on anyway
Georgia has a new flag.
It isn't a very pretty flag. It's cluttered with all kinds of symbols in an attempt to satisfy various special interests. It was designed by a committee with political considerations in mind, not by someone with a vision.
Nor was the process of adopting the new flag one that inspired a sense of unity. The secrecy surrounding the deal and the bowing to threats of an economic boycott left a bad taste in our mouths.
In the end, however, an unusual coalition of liberal black activists and conservative business leaders joined to make the new flag a reality. Worried about the economic fallout of a threatened boycott, business leaders urged lawmakers to vote "Yes" on the proposal, thus carrying the crucial key Republican votes needed in the state Senate.
But however flawed the design and process, the final vote has been taken and Georgia has a new flag. Now the question becomes of how best to transition from old to new.
We suggest that the retirement of the old Georgia flag be done with dignity, perhaps with a brief ceremony to mark the occasion. There are a number of organizations available to help with such events, from Scouting groups to heritage societies.
What's important about this transition is to set an example of civic responsibility for our youth, to show that after the dust has settled from a public debate, we can again unite as one community.
We have no illusions that this new flag will settle all the issues surrounding the state's racially polarized politics. No doubt some on both sides of the flag issue will seek to keep the debate going. Defenders of the old flag will see it as having been sacrificed for economics. Critics of the old flag will continue to agitate about other symbols associated with the Confederacy.
We can't change those minds, but we can set an example for the future.
We don't like the design of the new flag, nor the process which brought it about.
But we will unite beneath it now that the final vote has been taken. To do otherwise would betray the heart of our civic responsibility.
And that would be far uglier than the new flag.

Jackson County Opinion Index


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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
January 31, 2001

Real oversight needed in fire taxes
There are a lot of issues the new Jackson County Board of Commissioners is having to face. One of those is how it should handle fire protection in the county during the coming decade.
The new board probably doesn't want to talk much about that, however, given that the county's politically active fire departments carry a lot of weight. Most involved in those departments don't want the county's political leaders to ask questions.
Yet the new board is going to be forced to deal with the future of fire protection in Jackson County because of the dollars involved and the rapid growth.
Here's the situation: Jackson County has 10 fire districts in addition to two city fire departments. The creation of an 11th district near Jefferson is being discussed.
Each of these districts has a board of directors which is supposed to be elected by those living inside the district bounds. That doesn't happen very often, however, since members often rotate off the board before their term is up, thus allowing the other board members to appoint a replacement. And when elections are held, the races are seldom contested.
With one exception, each fire district board oversees one fire department. It's conceivable, however, that each district could have more than one department under its jurisdiction. (The exception is the East Jackson Fire District, which contracts with the City of Commerce for fire protection outside the city limits. The East Jackson Fire District is the conduit for funding and does not oversee the Commerce Fire Department.)
Each year, these 10 districts draft a budget and submit to the county a millage rate for their district. Although the county government doesn't have to levy the requested rate, it has never failed to do so.
But here's where the process begins to break down. For one thing, it isn't too unusual for these districts to submit millage rates before they even have a budget. Moreover, the budgets are often not accurate reflections of what will really be spent. Few districts show their carryover funds from the previous year and others underestimate their real projected income.
Compounding the problem is the lack of real oversight in the process. Many of those sitting on district boards are not truly arms-length from the fire department itself, such as relatives of firemen sitting on the board.
At the county commission level, the fire district budgets don't get the same grilling as other county departments. Although the BOC technically sets the fire district millage rates, it seldom asks questions of those districts. And at the end of the year, the fire districts have not been held to the same audit standards as the other departments in county government.
Back when budgets were smaller, none of this mattered very much. But now these 10 fire districts will collectively take in over $878,000 in property taxes this year. That doesn't count another $28,000 the county funds for fire protection services or SPLOST funds for a fire training facility.
That's not chump change.
And consider this: six of those 10 fire districts have millage rates higher than that of the City of Commerce, and two have rates higher than the City of Maysville. One fire district, West Jackson, has a budget over $231,000, which is larger than some towns in Jackson County.
In addition to the financial accountability is a question of how to plan for fire protection in the future. Jackson County is changing and with that fire services will also have to change.
But the coordination of these services will be important, not only to make sure funding is maximized, but also to ensure that all areas of the county have parity of service. Why not, for example, have a county fire board that disperses funding to each department rather than 10 independent districts?
The overriding issue, however, is the financial accountability of these independent fire districts to the taxpayers. Those who levy a tax at any level of government should be held accountable. No tax rate should be set without some kind of meaningful oversight.
That isn't being done in Jackson County and it hasn't been done for many years. But with a new form of government, the time is right for someone to begin an oversight process.
That someone should be the new board of commissioners.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Commerce News
January 31, 2001

High Gas Prices May Be Around For A While
It is beginning to look as if the record high prices for natural gas may be with us a while. It had been hoped that the steep prices ­ double or more what they were this time last year ­ would go down, but many utility analysts predict that high prices will linger indefinitely.
The problem relates to the electrical shortage in California, and the fact that other states will likely be in the same position soon. The only electrical generating plants being built are the gas turbine plants like our own Plant Dahlberg in Center, which use enormous amounts of natural gas. The new demand for natural gas, augmented by a colder-than-normal winter, has pushed gas prices to record levels.
Most of America's energy, whether used for fueling automobiles, keeping warm or generating electricity, comes from fossil fuels, and our appetite for energy is outstripping our means of producing it. The result: higher prices.
California and the rest of the country face a three-fold crisis. First, we all use too much energy. Our automobiles, homes and businesses are for the most part energy-inefficient. Second, our demand for low-cost energy has made the deployment of higher-cost technology seem cost prohibitive. The technology exists to reduce the nation's load by utilizing solar power, but the cost remains high. And, finally, the climate for constructing new plants to generate electricity is such that no one wants to assume the liability. One of the sticking points in deregulation is the recovery of the "stranded assets" invested in huge capital investments like power plants. In addition, the permitting process for power plants can take decades.
America's economy has long been dependent upon inexpensive fuel.
As the cliché goes, it will get worse before it gets better. The rolling blackouts in California and the high natural gas prices nationwide are our wake-up call. If our states and the federal government fail to answer that call, this month's seemingly high utility bills may look like incredible bargains in a few short years.

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