The Commerce News
February 14, 2001
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Jackson County Opinion Index
The Jackson Herald
February 14, 2001
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
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"
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
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
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.