The Commerce News
July 25, 2001
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Jackson County Opinion Index
The Jackson Herald
July 25, 2001
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
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
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
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.
The Commerce News
July 25, 2001
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.
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.