Jackson County Opinions...

July 18, 2001



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
July 25, 2001

Forget Truth: Speculation Is A Lot More Fun
If you're wondering what's taking the Georgia Bureau of Investigation so long to resolve the George Grimes allegations in Commerce, you're not alone.
Half of the people in Commerce want to see the investigation finished so we can move on. The other half want it to be over so they can start new rumors of a "cover-up" once the GBI confirms the allegation that Grimes acted alone.
But this is not a top priority for the GBI, not by a long shot. In fact, the Athens office wasn't even going to take the case until it was told to by Buddy Nix, GBI director, who in turn had been asked by city manager Clarence Bryant to conduct the investigation.
The GBI's reasoning was that it couldn't prosecute a dead man, so the matter was an administrative issue for the city of Commerce. Bryant's reasoning was that with all the rumors circulating (and still going strong), the last thing the city needed was an in-house investigation. Nix agreed to help out.
But the GBI's main business is to solve crimes and help put people in jail, and while there may be an economic slowdown in the rest of America, the GBI's business is booming. In fact, it is assisting the Commerce Police Department with a murder that occurred near Mount Vernon Mills a couple of weeks ago.
"I know this is very important to the city of Commerce, but when we have a murder case like we had in Commerce, that takes a priority," said Bill Malueg, agent in charge of the Athens office. He has a point.
The GBI also had a role in the Fortson trial in Danielsville, it no doubt is working on the investigation of the Tara Baker murder in Athens, and you can bet that the GBI has a hundred other active investigations, all of which are more important than determining what a dead guy did.
As of last week, the GBI's auditor had finished going through the receipt books from the police station and sent his findings to the Athens office. There were a couple of more interviews to be conducted.
What's the hurry? Ghandi, Mohammed and Jesus could all appear at a press conference in Commerce, but no one would believe them. If they said Grimes acted alone, certain people would insist there is a cover-up; if they announced that every elected official, cop and city employee was part of a vast conspiracy, the word on the street will be: "There had to be more people involved than that."
Gossip and rumor are the major sources of recreation in Commerce. Folks create stories with no basis in fact just to see who will repeat what. Nothing stokes the public's imagination like a glimpse of corruption or vulnerability among those in power and authority, and when you get a real bone like the evidence Grimes left behind, almost any scenario will be offered.
We need to admit that while we pretend to be repulsed by scandal, we actually love it. It lets us feel superior to those who were either corrupted or on whose watch corruption occurred.
We don't want truth. We don't need facts. We'd rather have multiple scenarios so each of us can believe what we like.



Editorial
The Jackson Herald
July 25, 2001

Time for BOC to address fire district issues
Should Jackson County's nine fire districts be held to the same level of accountability as all other departments in county government? Should Jackson County leaders be free to consider ways to improve fire protection for residents in the community?
Those are the two key questions facing the Jackson County Board of Commissioners as they ponder how to deal with nine semi-autonomous fire districts. Some members of the BOC want those districts to do a better job of bookkeeping and to be more receptive to the idea of adding some full-time firefighters during the day when many volunteers are away at work.
But fire district leaders have voiced strong opposition to both ideas.
So this BOC has a choice too make - do as its predecessors have done and wimp out by letting the issues die, or press the matter to a resolution that will increase both financial accountability and fire protection service.
We believe the board has no choice but to follow the latter course, or risk losing its own credibility. The fire districts raised over $600,000 in taxes last year and at the end of the year had another $530,000 in cash on hand. That's a lot of money any way you measure it.
Now, no one has suggested that the fire districts have misused tax funds. As far as we know, there is no evidence of such activity. But there is ample evidence that those tax dollars are being handled carelessly and without an appropriate level of accountability.
For years, some fire departments have been late in turning in budget requests to the county. Even when such budgets are turned in, the numbers tend to be general and not specific. Even worse, however, is that some fire districts have the habit of setting their millage rates before they even do a budget. And a few districts don't adjusted their millage rates even as their tax base increases. That means those districts may collect more money than they really need.
Compounding that problem is the absence of efficient record-keeping done by many districts. The lack of balanced bank statements and a disorganization of records is a constant problem at the end of the year when auditors come in to look over Jackson County's financial records.
County officials have offered to do the bookkeeping for the fire districts, but fire leaders were opposed to that idea.
In addition to the financial issue, county leaders want the fire districts to consider the addition of some paid firefighters during times when volunteers aren't available. During the day, for example, there are areas of Jackson County which are virtually unprotected due to a large number of volunteer firemen being away at work.
But again, fire leaders were opposed to that idea, saying that paid and volunteer firefighters can't work together. They suggested instead that the county rely more on the JCCI prison fire department. Relying on a prison fire department, however, is not an easy undertaking, as Banks County officials recently discovered.
The BOC itself isn't blameless in all of this. For years it has ignored the fire districts, allowing late budgets and inaccurate millage rates even though the BOC itself is ultimately responsible for that money.
We believe it is time for all of these issues to be addressed. One possible solution would be for the county to levy a county-wide millage rate for fire protection instead of nine different district rates. That money could then be budgeted to the various departments as needed. Moreover, the county could do as neighboring Banks County has done and hire a full-time fire coordinator to assess the future needs of fire protection in the community.
Whatever is done, however, the BOC should ensure that an appropriate level of financial control is in place and that the county is planning for the future and not stuck in the past. Anything less than that won't be fair to the citizens of Jackson County who pay the bills and receive the service.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
July 25, 2001

Growth in local government huge since 1990
There's an old saying that if you want to know a government's priorities, just follow the money. That's why this newspaper reports on local government budgets and audits each year so that citizens can better "follow the money" rather than just relying on political rhetoric.
The audit of the Jackson County government for 2000 is one of the best-organized financial books I've seen. While the numbers may seem a little intimidating, for those involved in public policy decisions, they speak volumes about where Jackson County stands financially and where it is going.
But that audit is just a snapshot, a one-year glimpse of a government's operations. To really understand what's happening in Jackson County, or any government, you have to look at several years and put all those numbers into a larger context.
As an exercise in government accountability, let's take a look at the last decade of Jackson County government. In 1990, Jackson County had 30,000 citizens and had already begun growing. In 2000, Jackson County had 41,000 citizens, a 36.6 percent increase over the 10-year period.
That's a lot of growth, especially for a county that had lost population in the early part of the century and had grown slowly through the 1960-1980. In that 20-year period, the county only grew from 18,000 to 25,000 people.
One would assume that if the county's population grew around 36 percent in the last decade the local government would have grown at about the same rate. But that isn't the case. From 1990 to 2000, the county government grew by 138 percent - and that excludes the growth in the water authority which is a major sub-agency of county government. In 1990, the county government spent $8.8 million. In 2000, the government spent $20.7 million, excluding capital projects (which in 2000 would have skewed the difference even more.)
That's a huge growth in just 10 years.
What has sparked that increase and why has government grown faster than the county's actual population growth?
In a nutshell, the government has grown not just as a response to providing services to more people, but also because it's had a growth of available funds.
For one thing, the growth in the county's retail businesses, especially around Banks Crossing, has allowed sales tax income to climb by 164 percent. In addition, rising property values and new homes and industries have driven up the tax digest, allowing net property tax income to jump a whopping 225 percent from 1990 to 2000.
Of course, taxes aren't the only source of income for the county government. But what is disturbing about the numbers is that the county is today more heavily dependent on property taxes for income than a decade ago. In 1990, property taxes were just 23 percent of the county's total revenues. In 2000, property taxes made up 33 percent of the total income. That may be due in part to the fact that despite a booming tax digest, the county millage rate has remained about the same (until this year, which is another story.)
But how much of the county government's growth is in response to citizen demands and how much has been dollars chasing a cause? That's difficult to say, because both influences are at work.
There's no doubt that citizens demand and expect more of county government now than ever before. Recreation, for example, was barely a blip in the 1990 audit at $40,000. In 2000, the recreation department was $371,000, an eightfold increase. Now county leaders are debating entry into animal control, a project that is popular with the public, but which will absorb additional government resources.
Years ago, both of those services were left to city governments while county governments focused on paving roads, law enforcement and the court system. Now, however, county governments offer virtually the same services as most towns.
Despite those demands, however, it's difficult to see how county government dollars could have grown 138 percent in 10 years without some reverse demand taking place - that is, the government has grown because it's had a booming tax digest that has pumped dollars into county coffers like a heavy rain fills a pond.
That's not all bad, but one has to wonder about the increasing dependence on property taxes to fund county government programs. While that's been easy in the last decade because of all the additional tax base, what happens if the current economic slowdown stifles growth and the tax base stagnates? Is the county government prepared to cut expense to compensate for such an economy, or will it just ramp up the millage rate and become even more dependent on property taxes as a source of income?
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
July 25, 2001

Council, Planning Commission Must Agree
If the two groups can mend their differences enough to stay in the same room together, the Commerce City Council and Commerce Planning Commission intend to revisit the city's comprehensive land use plan. The idea is that the city has changed so much since the land use plan was created that it is no longer relevant.
The idea is good, because the city has changed dramatically and none of the current officials had any input when the plan was created. The current "future" land use plan, for example, shows agricultural uses along Interstate 85 and elsewhere in the city limits. There is also no undeveloped land zoned for multi-family housing either, so developers of such projects have no direction as to where to locate or where such housing would be acceptable to the city. The current brouhaha between the planning commission and the city council grew out of that situation.
It would also benefit both groups as they contemplate changes to know exactly how many housing units exist in the city and how many of those are rental units. That data may be obtainable once the fine details of the 2000 Census are released, by which time the information will be at least two years old. But it would be helpful for city officials to know the ratios of rental housing, of low-income housing and mobile homes as they try to maintain a healthy balance of housing types in the city. The city will need to know the number and location of all residential rental units anyway if its new proposal to conduct inspections between tenants is to work.
Zoning and land use plans are just management tools for protecting the community and directing its growth. This city is located in a corridor that will grow exponentially over the next few decades and it is extremely difficult if not impossible to maintain the character of a community with that kind of growth. Under those circumstances, the two groups will continually be at the points of contention when property owners and developers propose changes. Both groups need to be of a consensus when the land use plan is created, because the land use plan is supposed to be a central determining factor when rezoning decisions are made. If the city council and planning commission do not reach a consensus, then the resulting land use plan will be useless because one group or the other will lack the will to abide by it.
Both groups have griped and groused at each other long enough. Neither is altogether right nor altogether wrong. They need to come together and draft a land use plan that will serve, protect and guide this community in the upcoming years.

Accountability Necessary
Members of nine of Jackson County's fire departments need to get over their anger at the Jackson County Board of Commissioners for insisting on handling fire department financial records. The commissioners are absolutely right; accountability is necessary.
The firemen may be volunteers, but their enterprise is funded by the public's money, primarily ad valorem taxes. Given the amount of money the various fire departments collect and the fact that there is little in the way of oversight, the commissioners' request is valid.
It used to be that firemen and their supporters raised the money to operate their departments through a variety of fund-raisers. But when the need for equipment and materials grew beyond the means of the departments, the firemen turned to the taxpayers. Now that the fire departments use public funds, it is important that they have financial oversight ­ including audits. Public money comes with public oversight. The commissioners are right, and the firemen must comply.


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