Jackson County Opinions...

February 14, 2001

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
February 14, 2001

'Progress' To Create Lots Of Environmentalists
People suddenly become environmentalists when their property is being threatened by development.
That came to mind last Thursday night when people whose property is coveted by the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority for a sewer line appeared before the authority.
There are 37 parcels of land through which engineers considered running the line from the old Texfi treatment plant on the Winder Road up the North Oconee River and Doster Creek to Mulberry Plantation and West Jackson Middle School (and, potentially, a lot larger area).
The plan called for the lines to run along the creeks, which is typical for sewer line construction.
A sewer easement is not a pretty thing. It's 20 feet wide with manholes sticking up. The right of way requires regular maintenance, and when leaks or spills occur, and the possibility always exists, they can be quite ugly and nasty.
I don't know how many of these residents were environmentally conscious a month ago, but they are all concerned about wetlands, wildlife, streams and trees this month. At least their wetlands, wildlife, streams and trees, not to mention their privacy and property values.
When confronted with that kind of development, the typical reaction is to damn the development itself, cast suspicion on the motives of the development, embrace environmentalism, impugn the professional qualifications of those designing the project, declare that it will destroy property values and lifestyle, accept the worst-case scenario as inevitable and allege that the project is for "special interests."
This group did each of those things. I might too in their circumstances, although experience watching city and county water and sewer systems being built or expanded gives a different perspective.
Some property owners loudly opposed when sewer lines cross their property will later sell their land for a fortune because of that sewer access. Others will never know how much that sewer line helped keep property taxes down because of the industrial growth it allowed.
But some could see their worst fears realized. They may see an ugly swath cut through their timber or bottomlands, have their privacy intruded upon by heavy equipment or see raw sewage on the ground from a break or bad joint. More likely, they'll find lifestyles compromised by development that follows.
Before it is over, development will make a lot of us more conscious of our environment. We'll grow weary of the crowding, lament the loss of open vistas, bemoan the traffic and noise and reminisce about the days when cows grazed in what is now the 900-home Canterbury Meadows subdivision.
That land is taken or damaged for the "greater good" does little to placate the owner. Damage to the environment is real when it's close at hand. When development threatens your land, the worst-case scenario seems most likely.
The major difference between a "tree hugger" and an injured property owner is the proximity. "Progress" will create a lot of new environmentalists. It's already happening.

The Jackson Herald
February 14, 2001

Time for change in Jefferson
A wind of change blew through the Jefferson City Council Monday night. After years of private discussions, the town fathers voted to adopt a city manager form of government.
It is a move that portends a huge change in the way the city is governed. That change won't be easy, but it has become increasingly clear that Jefferson has grown to the point where it needs some kind of professional management structure. The old ways, whatever their past merits, just won't work any longer.
That isn't to say that the city has been governed poorly in the past. In fact, the city's successful track record in luring industry is one sign that it has indeed been a progressive, forward-looking town. Today, the city has the county's largest municipal tax base and houses over half of all the industrial tax base in the county. The addition of new subdivisions in recent years has also lured many new residents and the town's population has grown greatly.
But the impact of all this growth has begun to wear on the town's old government structure. For several years, the town has been coasting on past glory and has failed to keep up with the changing environment in which it operates. It has been successful, in some cases, in spite of itself.
A professional management system can help change that, but no system will work unless the city council itself is willing to change. For one thing, the council will have to abandon its archaic system of having council members oversee various city departments. It's always been a bad system, one in which council members spend too much time guarding turf and in some cases interfering in the daily operations of a department. If council members aren't willing to give up that role, the manager system won't work.
For their part, department heads will have to get out of the practice of going to the mayor and council to deal with problems. They will be reporting to a hired manager, not the politicians. If they aren't willing to follow that procedure, the manager system won't work.
Mayor Byrd Bruce will also have to adapt his role under the new system. Although he opposed the manager plan, preferring instead to create a full-time mayor's position, the decision has been made and he will have to change as the city changes.
All of that should be addressed in the legislation to change the city charter. The roles of the various parties should be spelled out clearly so that misunderstandings will be minimal.
Around 15 years ago, Commerce went through this same process. The change was wrenching, and for a while, unsettling to a lot of people. Yet today, Commerce is by far the best-governed city in the county. The mayor and council set the policies, but they don't interfere with the city manager.
Jefferson needs such a system, but the move won't be easy. The same council which voted Monday night for a city manager in Jefferson will have to be willing to give up a lot of control that it now has, or the new system will be a mess.
Voting to change to a city manager system was the easy part.
Actually making it work will be much more difficult.


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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
February 14, 2001

Homestead exemption needs a second look
As regular readers of this column know, I'm not a big fan of property taxes. Of all the systems of taxation, property taxes are the worst. They're bad because the levy of the tax depends on a subjective assessment of a property's value. And they're bad because they're difficult to administer.
But property taxation is also bad because powerful political interests have distorted the system so that certain groups of taxpayers get more favorable treatment than others.
The most obvious local example of that is the conservation use program where agricultural land gets a huge tax break. While the conservation use program has some good secondary benefits, such as the short-term preservation of green space, it also creates a larger tax burden on homeowners. In the Jackson County School System, the conservation use program upped homeowner taxes by 1.6 mills this year.
Now comes another proposal being floated by Sen. Mike Beatty to raise the homestead exemption for "senior citizens" by $20,000. It is no doubt popular among the gray-haired set, but it will, if passed and approved by voters, further distort the property tax system.
Although Sen. Beatty hasn't yet introduced specific legislation, draft copies floating around raise some serious questions. For one thing, the proposals state the new exemptions would be in addition to all other existing homestead exemptions, meaning that most older homeowners would actually benefit much more than just $20,000. On top of that, tax commissioner Don Elrod says no one has talked with him about the proposals and he isn't sure it'll be possible to code a totally new homestead exemption into the county's computer system.
Another aspect of the proposals says that they would apply to school bond debts. The problem with that is that it can only apply to new school bonds, not existing ones. That would make for a huge complication in tracking individual tax bills.
In addition to those issues, the proposals would not be limited to any income cap as is currently the case for special elderly homestead exemptions. The outcome would be that even wealthy senior citizens who could afford to pay their fair share of taxes would be getting the same break as those seniors who were living on a low fixed income.
Those are the specific issues that will need to be addressed in the proposals. In the larger picture, however, there are other considerations. For one thing, increasing the homestead exemptions for those age 65 and older won't lower tax collections, it will only shift the tax burden to younger taxpayers. That may make for good politics since younger homeowners don't vote in the same numbers as older homeowners, but I'm not sure that is sound public policy. One's obligation to society doesn't end at age 65.
Moreover, as the baby boom generation ages and reaches age 65, a larger percentage of homeowners will qualify for the tax break. That will further shift the tax burden down to younger residents, similar to what has happened with Social Security.
Now, I realize that there are two arguments made for giving those over age 65 a break on property taxes: First, some argue that those over age 65 are on a fixed income and don't have the resources to pay increasing taxes. Second, some argue that those over age 65 have been paying taxes all along and have "earned" a break.
The first argument I somewhat agree with. That's why any special homestead exemption should have an income cap so that it only applies to those who cannot afford to pay. The second argument, however, falls short of reality. In a growing county like Jackson, there will be new people moving here who are over age 65, but who have never paid a dime of property taxes to the local governments. In my mind, they haven't "earned" a break in Jackson County.
If Sen. Beatty and Rep. Pat Bell wish to pursue changing the homestead exemption for older citizens, they should consider two things: First, get rid of the existing four local elderly homestead provisions and replace them with just one elderly provision that is consistent in all taxing districts in Jackson County, including city taxes in Jefferson, Commerce and Maysville where currently there are no homestead exemptions. To create a fifth elderly homestead on top of the current provisions will be a mess and may even be technically impossible.
Second, any homestead exemption created for the elderly should have an income cap so that wealthy homeowners who can afford the taxes pay their fair share.
Even those provisions won't solve the inequity of property taxation, but they would at least give a little more balance to a bad system.
And until state leaders have the courage to abolish property taxes in favor of sales or use taxes, that's the best we can hope for.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Commerce News
February 14, 2001

We Don't Need A 'King Roy' Or A 'King George'
They don't call Gov. Roy Barnes "King Roy" for nothing. Not only does he seem vested with unprecedented power, but he also seems to be credited with eternal wisdom.
Don't be mistaken; Gov. Barnes has done some good with his education reform, cutting class sizes and proposing to end "social" promotions. But one has to wonder exactly from whence does the governor's omnipotence arise?
The governor has come into the classroom to tell teachers exactly which students should be promoted and which should be retained. He has created another layer of bureaucracy in each school with the local school council and he has established a system of carrots and sticks he believes (but which has not been tested) will make school superintendents, principals and teachers accountable.
He created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority to take transportation control away from the Georgia Department of Transportation and he is creating a regional water authority to wrest control of water, sewerage and storm water runoff from individual governments in Metro Atlanta.
What King Roy wants, King Roy seems to get. In a General Assembly that is nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, this is most remarkable. It's as if Georgia has suddenly become, well, something of a monarchy. Whatever the governor declares necessary is fully accepted by his minions in the General Assembly.
No doubt, part of this is the partisanship of the times. With the Democratic majority much slimmer, the pressure is mounted to make sure all Democrats line up and vote accordingly; a similar situation endures in the U.S. Congress, where anything beyond housekeeping is largely divided along partisan lines.
This does not serve the public. The voters elect senators and representatives to exercise judgment, not to take party loyalty oaths. Voters elected Pat Bell not to blindly follow Roy Barnes, and Mike Beatty not to blindly oppose Barnes, but rather elected both to serve the interests of their constituents in providing good government. Voters in other districts similarly elected men and women they felt were most in tune with important issues.
The partisans in both parties should be tossed out at the first opportunity. Georgia needs senators and representatives who will support good legislation, regardless of who introduces it, and who will oppose bad legislation, no matter where it comes from. The situation in Congress is the same; those strongly inclined to partisanship do more harm than good. They constitute the biggest single impediment to good government.
Too many Democrats and Republicans try to make every issue one of partisanship. It's not that simple. Until people are elected who can vote on principle before party, legislation over loyalty, government at all levels will suffer at the hands of a King Roy or a King George.

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