Jackson County Opinions...

August 29, 2001



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
August 29, 2001

At Least Our Downtown Lacks Portable Toilets
Jan Nelson always writes about things that affect downtowns, so I thought I'd share the success story from Athens. The bars and restaurants are so full of customers at night that Athens has had to install portable toilets to keep revelers from urinating on private property.
As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. So many alcohol-filled Athenians downtown when the bars close at 2:30 on Sunday mornings are peeing on buildings, in alleyways and in the parking garage that it has become a nuisance.
Like Commerce, Athens has spent a lot of money making its downtown pedestrian-friendly. It is a very popular place day or night; try to find a parking place there and you'll see what I mean. Athens has a beautiful, vibrant downtown.
Having spent all that money, the downtown is victimized by its success ­ there is no way portable toilets enhance its appearance. But because there are so many people in town and so few bathrooms (at least at night), the Downtown Development Authority has installed portable toilets and is considering making them permanent fixtures.
This may make some business owners happy. The staff at the parking deck, for example, may no longer have to clean up after small-bladdered drunk people who wander in at 2:40 a.m. and use the facilities that aren't designed as facilities. But the businesses next to the ugly portable toilets are not all that happy now.
The parking deck is apparently a favorite after-closing urination station, so the Athens DDA concluded that it would be a logical place to locate the blue one-seaters. I know for a fact that employees of the adjacent bank had to endure the odors and were, shall we say, peeved.
Many a downtown in Georgia would love to have so much business that restroom facilities are urgently needed ­ but it is a tough problem to solve. The city could build public restrooms, but they would cause nightmarish problems for maintenance and security.
An accompanying issue is the number of intoxicated individuals in the downtown at night. Given the popularity of bars and the partying nature of UGA students and Dawg fans, Athens probably has more drunks per capita on Saturday nights after home football games than any city in Georgia. The attendant problems of drunk driving and crimes ranging from theft to rape go with the revelers as they walk to their cars, dorms or apartments or as they drive home.
Being home to a huge university, Athens has special problems few other cities face. Fortunately, it has the resources to resolve those problems as well. I'd be willing to wager that the portable toilets will not become permanent fixtures.
In Commerce, the biggest people problem at night downtown is littering, including broken beer bottles left by loiterers who are generally well watched by our police. At 2:30 a.m., no one is downtown.
Our challenge is to add vitality and life to the downtown, including restaurants that open in the evening. But we're so far from facing what Athens must deal with that we can only gasp in astonishment. Our little town has its own downtown woes, but at least portable toilets will not be among them.



Editorial
The Jackson Herald
August 29, 2001

Support ongoing sales tax for education
One of the biggest problems with property taxation is that it is inherently unfair to a large number of people. Because of various distortions in the system, a narrow group of citizens wind up paying a disproportionate share of the burden.
That's why we like sales taxes as a means of paying for government services. For the most part, the more you spend, the more sales taxes you pay.
This is especially true for the cost of education. As we all know, the biggest share of local taxes goes toward education.
That burden might not be very heavy if we lived in an area where the student population was stagnant. But most schools in Jackson County are growing and more space is needed to house those students.
The best way to pay for those expansions is to continue using a one percent sales tax for education building expenses. For the last four years, all three local school systems have used that one percent sales tax to expand existing facilities, build new facilities and to help pay off bond debts from previous construction projects.
On Sept. 18, Jackson County voters will be asked to continue that sales tax for another five years to raise around $43 million for additional construction projects and to pay down bond debt. We believe local voters should answer "Yes" to that question and support continuing this sales tax.
Our local school system will need new facilities in the coming years. In fact, plans are already on the drawing board for a primary school in Jefferson and a new county high school in East Jackson. We can either pay for those projects with higher property taxes that put the burden on just a few, or with sales taxes that spread the burden among everyone. In fact, because of the Tanger retail stores along I-85 in Jackson County, the sales tax burden is spread to many who don't even live in Jackson County.
We believe the sales tax is the best way to pay for those projects and encourage voters to support the measure on Sept. 18.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
August 29, 2001

We all pay for ag tax breaks
Here's a trick question: This newspaper uses newsprint for its production. Newsprint comes from pulp, which comes from trees, which are agricultural products. Ergo, the press that prints this newspaper is equipment used in agricultural production.
If the local tax assessment office would buy that argument, I'd have it made. As of this year, equipment used in agricultural production on family farms is exempt from property taxes. Since this is a family newspaper, seems like our newspaper press ought to be exempt from property taxes as well.
I doubt, however, that our local assessors will buy that argument. We'll have to continue paying property taxes on the press because unlike farmers, we don't have special interest groups working at the state capital to get such exemptions for newspaper presses.
But don't feel sorry for me. Everyone reading this newspaper is going to help make up the difference. While the agricultural industry continues to get a host of special exemptions from property taxes and sales taxes, the rest of us will pay more.
Fortunately for Jackson County, the loss this year on agricultural equipment won't be as much as in some counties in South Georgia. Here, the total amount coming off the tax books is just $5.8 million. Still, that amount will cost the county school system $86,950 in taxes and the county government $15,000 in income. All of that will have to be made up by - guess who? - you and me. (The small $5.8 million raises another issue: In a county with as much poultry and farm equipment as Jackson has, why wasn't more of that equipment on the books to begin with?)
While this dollar amount isn't very much relative to the total tax base, it is another example of how the agricultural industry in Georgia continues to get special tax breaks that burden the rest of us taxpayers. For example, the largest impact on local property taxes is the conservation use program for agricultural land that will take $96.3 million off the Jackson County tax digest this year. While that program has some good points, such as encouraging land preservation in the face of development pressures, it has a tremendous financial impact on local governments and on other taxpayers in Jackson County.
Property taxes are inherently a bad way to raise revenue for government. Back when the state was mostly agricultural, wealth was largely measured by land ownership. Property taxation perhaps made some sense at that time.
But not today. The assessment of property taxes is an inexact science at best, a wild guess at worst. It is a paperwork nightmare for government and for many property owners. It punishes those who are society's producers while bypassing a large number of citizens who pay the taxes only indirectly.
But worst of all, property taxation has become so distorted by special interest groups that the burden is being shifted in ways that are unfair. What, for example, makes family farms any different than a family dry cleaning business, or any other small family enterprise? Why must the rest of the community pay more taxes so agricultural businesses can get a break?
The same could be said for some of the homestead exemptions where some get a windfall just because they've reached a certain age.
The common thread between those two exemptions are powerful lobby groups that tug and pull at state politicians to get special tax exemptions.
The problem is, average taxpayers don't have a lobby in Atlanta to ask for tax breaks. For example, why shouldn't young families with children get a tax break? Shouldn't we as a society encourage young families to invest in home ownership by granting them a special tax exemption?
Alas, there is no "young families lobby" in Atlanta. Instead, young struggling families have to pay more taxes because Farmer John no longer pays taxes on his tractor and pays reduced taxes on his land.
Anytime a tax exemption is granted to one special group, the rest of us pay for the difference. Farmers may not pay taxes on their tractors any more, but the children in local schools still have to be housed and taught. Roads still have to be paved. Bad guys still have to be arrested and put in jail.
The cost of government doesn't go down when an exemption is granted; the burden just shifts to other, less powerful groups.
Farming is a business. It should be treated like any business. If we are going to tax the equipment of one business, we should tax the equipment of all businesses: tractors, poultry equipment, newspaper presses and dry cleaning equipment.
Last year, voters in Georgia approved the farm equipment tax break. This year, we're all going to pay for it.
Ask yourself if it was worth it when you write your county tax check in a few weeks.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
August 29, 2001

Should Illegal Immigrants
Be Allowed To Drive?

Advocates for Hispanic immigrants in Georgia are hard at work petitioning the state to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.The idea is that such a move would allow illegals who often resort to using faked driver's licenses to purchase insurance in Georgia.
Like most issues, there is probably more to this than meets the eye, but the idea of granting legal status to an activity by people who are illegally in the country is very disturbing. It is certainly to be hoped that the General Assembly does not put this initiative in the fast track.
Georgia faces a problem that other states share: what to do about the growing number of Hispanic workers in regard to driving. Our state's schools are already obligated to educate the children of illegal immigrants and our economy is dependent upon the labor the immigrants provide. Several states already allow illegal immigrants to get licenses.
But granting driving rights to illegal residents seems like an admission by the state that it is giving up on trying to enforce immigration laws ­ or a recognition that the United States has done so. A logical subsequent step, it seems, would be to grant blanket amnesty to immigrants and throw the borders open, neither of which the American public is prepared to do. With a driver's license, one can acquire all kinds of other rights and privileges normally not thought to be available to illegals, although, truth be known, there is a thriving business in fake IDs and licenses.
It may also be that the basic hypothesis of the move ­ that illegal immigrants will buy automobile insurance ­ is incorrect. We'd like to see the figures from those states who have offered driver's licenses to illegals to see what percentage acquire the licenses and what percentage of those buy and maintain the required insurance.
In the mean time, Georgia should be in no hurry to grant driving rights to people who are in this country in violation of the law.

Less Than Forthcoming
Is there anyone in America who thinks Rep. Gary Condit had nothing to do with the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy?
In an interview with journalist Connie Chung, Condit did nothing but convince any American who at the time was undecided or ignorant that he was hiding the details of a case that has gained worldwide attention. Worse, he appeared arrogant and, if you will, Clinton-like in his avoidance of key questions.
Here is a man who had a "very close" relationship with a 24-year-old intern who has since disappeared and may very well be dead. He sidestepped questions about whether he had a sexual relationship with the missing woman and claimed to have "fully cooperated" with police in the four-month-old disappearance case, an assertion that police dispute.
And, he is seeking re-election.
Gary Condit clearly doesn't want the public to know about his relationship with a woman less than half his age, and it appears that he has been less than forthcoming with law enforcement officials investigating the case. What happened to Chandra Levy remains a national mystery, but there is nothing mysterious about Condit's character.
Condit's relationship with an intern certainly breaks no new ground, but the fact that no one has seen Miss Levy for four months makes this matter much more serious than an extramarital escapade. Condit has broken faith with his constituents, broken his marriage vows and taken advantage of a young woman, but the victim's disappearance suggests the truth, when learned, will be much darker yet.


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