Jackson County Opinions...

September 26, 2001



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
September 26, 2001

Show Your Patriotism By Spending More
Get out there, readers, and show Osama bin Laden you're not intimidated. Spend your money.
That is the message being delivered by everyone from President Bush to the local chamber of commerce. It is your patriotic duty to keep your credit cards filled to their limit.
The problem is that Americans, who were already slowing their spending somewhat before Sept. 11, really cut back following the terrorist attacks. Unless America returns to its buy-now-pay-later spending-to-excess lifestyle, the nation could experience a recession.
I think the terrorists blasted some common sense into Americans, though probably it will not last too long. I mean, the Democrats and Republicans are actually talking to each other, more people are going to church and praying and all races, genders and national origins are pretty much united. Maybe, just maybe, some of us have figured out that we can survive without having every item our hearts desire.
One of the many fascinating aspects of the aftermath of the attacks could well be the status of the economy if Americans have substantially changed their spending habits. I don't have much confidence that the changes will last forever, but what if they do?
The economy is based on spending to excess. What would happen if the nation suddenly decided to pay off its VISA bills and quit carrying a huge balance, quit buying new cars or trucks every two years and discovered that there is life without AOL, eBay and the Home Shopping Network?
Economists shudder at the very possibility. Were a rumor to be advanced that such a scenario was unfolding, the Dow Jones Industrials would drop below 6,000, Alan Greenspan would cut the prime rate to minus-five and Congress would have no choice but to declare war on somebody.
"It's the economy, Stupid," was the motto of Bill Clinton when he first ran for president. And he was right. The economy is the foremost concern of every politician and every stockbroker, banker or financial consultant, a group that seems to make up 40 percent of the American population.
Or, at least, we were.
It's not in the Bill of Rights, but Americans view the right to a healthy economy as a Constitutional privilege second only to the right to bear arms. A poll of high school juniors in America would reveal that 74 percent think "freedom of spending" is constitutionally protected.
But what if, slapped upside the head with the terrorists' 2 by 4, Americans agreed with what the rest of the world has been saying, that we're spoiled and materialistic, and changed its ways? That would be a good thing, right?
Not right, say the economists, because the economy is as dependent upon our over-spending as the crack addict is on his next smoke.
I don't suppose they'll have to worry. It'll take more than a few buildings destroyed and 6,000 lives lost to keep us out of the malls and outlet stores or to make us surrender our cell phones, Palm Pilots or cappucinos.
We're not just the land of the free; we're the land of the free-spending.



Editorial
The Jackson Herald
September 26, 2001

Looming conflict a 'clash of civilizations'
Sept. 11 was a terrible day for America, a day where buildings tumbled and new fault lines were created in the world order.
In 1993, Samuel Huntington wrote a highly touted article in "Foreign Affairs" magazine in which he predicted that the end of the Cold War would lead to a world where conflict would revolve mostly around cultural rather than ideological or political differences.
The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 may have been another in a string of such clashes that in the coming decades will reshape the balance of power in the world.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communist ideology in 1991, the world order has been in transition. As Huntington pointed out in 1993, the old labels of East vs. West and First World vs. Third World no longer apply.
What has been notable, however, are that many of the major conflicts around the globe since 1991 have been between people of different cultures. More pointedly, many of those conflicts have been between Muslim cultures and Western cultures: the Gulf War, Bosnia, Sarajevo, Croatia, Azerbaijan and the Caucasus region.
Leaders of this country have been correct in saying that America's war on terrorism is a "new kind of war." And President Bush has been successful, so far, in bringing in friendly Middle Eastern states as allies in the fight against terrorists.
But one has to wonder if the events of Sept. 11 were not just another stepping stone toward a broader conflict down the road. If Huntington's analysis is correct, this conflict won't revolve around governments or nations, but rather around cultural differences that are deeply rooted and not easily changed; a "clash of civilizations" as Huntington stated it.
Militant Islam is not the cause of those differences, but is the gasoline that makes them burn hotter and longer. And therein lies a danger for the future which could easily transcend the events of Sept. 11. While currently small in number, Islamic militants are poised to inflame an entire Islamic civilization against the West.
In the coming weeks, the world will teeter on the edge of civilization's fault lines. What happens now will shape the world for decades to come.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
September 26, 2001

Is county getting top-heavy?
I'd hate to be a county commissioner. Although various county commissioners have been grist for this column over the years, I do have sympathy for their plight. Being a county commissioner is like living in a room with moving walls - no matter which way you turn, the pressure is coming at you.
So it isn't without some compassion this year that I've been looking through the county's proposed 2002 budget. We all know the story by now of how the "old" board of commissioners drastically rolled back the property tax rate last year, forcing this year's "new" board to dip into reserves to the tune of $4.5 million. That in turn has forced the board to lop off $3 million from the 2002 budget even as it raises the rate back to a higher level.
But for all the talk about an austere budget, I'm not sure that's totally the case in the 2002 proposal. While a lot of requests are going unfunded, one of the costliest items in the budget has passed by without mention - the growth in department head salaries.
It's no secret that the biggest cost in government is personnel pay and benefits. A decade ago, many local government salaries and benefits would have barely gotten a passing grade. That's no longer the case with many local government positions where both the pay and benefits have grown at alarming rates.
In the four years between 1999 and the 2002 budget, total county government salaries and benefits have grown a whopping 49 percent, an average of over 12 percent each year. That's far more than the overall spending in county government, which has grown around 32 percent in the same period.
Put another way, in 1999, total county government salaries and benefits were 61 percent of the county's general fund expenses. For 2002, salaries and benefits are projected to be 68 percent of general fund expenses.
One could argue, of course, that such a growth in payroll was necessary to keep up with growth in the county. That may be true. But while the county has seen a lot of growth in that time, it wasn't as much as the growth in government. The county tax digest has grown by only 27 percent between 1999 and 2002, meaning that the growth in government continues to outpace overall community growth.
But the real quandary in all these numbers isn't just the overall payroll growth, but is rather an explosion in department head positions and salaries. Between 1999 and the proposed 2002 budget, the county department head payroll has grown by nearly $500,000, a 56 percent increase over four years. Only one county department head makes less than $40,000 per year. Some 14 department heads make over $50,000 per year.
Some of those salaries, especially for elected county officials, are set by the state. But other positions are under the control of the BOC, where over a four-year period, department head pay has gone up from six to nine percent each year.
In addition to those increases, several new departments have been created where the department head pay starts in the $50,000-per-year range. And that doesn't include the new position of county manager, the highest-paid county position at $92,000 per year.
While this growth in management has taken place unabated, not all county employees have seen such increases in pay. The sheriff's department, for example, continues to be a revolving door where employees come and go and the pay has remained low compared to other positions.
None of these issues are new to government administration, of course. It's always a challenge for governments to balance the need for administrative positions against the demand for people to actually carry out the work being planned by those administrators. Not only that, but market forces have changed the landscape as pay scales are forced upward by new industries and the influence of metro Atlanta.
Still, one has to ask: Is the Jackson County government getting top-heavy?
There's no clear answer to that question. While there's no doubt that local department head salaries have grown, as a ratio of the overall payroll, they have remained about the same.
But it wouldn't hurt for county leaders to take a look at not just the "extras" being asked for in their budget process, but also look at the overall administrative structure. While the dramatic growth in the county during the last decade afforded an expansion in administrative expenses, we may be entering a period of austerity where county leaders will have to make some difficult decisions.
The truth is, the county has been flush with money in recent years. Spending it was easy and as the numbers show, the county government growth has been larger than the overall county growth.
Being a leader when times are good is easy.
Real leadership is steering a course when the seas get rough.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
September 26, 2001

Kindness, Generosity Also Came Of Sept. 11
How many times did we watch the tape of the second airplane hitting the World Trade Center Sept. 11 and the following days? How many times did we see the twin towers fall? How many stories of horror and heroism did we see that week?
But for every grisly photograph or story, for every death and injury, there is also an act of kindness, generosity, unity and strength of purpose emanating from the pile of rubble that was once an icon of trade and consumerism. America lost a landmark. It lost some of its security and it lost a number of its citizens. It appears to be heading to war.
Yet, for all of the bad, great and good things have happened as well. We've heard the stories of brave firefighters and police officers who died and of passengers wresting control of one airplane to thwart the terrorists. Those reports were just the beginning.
If the terrorists think they've cowed America, they're wrong. Virtually every school in America is raising money for disaster relief. Children, teenagers and adults are donating time, money and prayers to benefit New Yorkers. The Red Cross has thousands of volunteers from all over the world still helping support the recovery effort. Tributes to the fallen are everywhere; the outpouring of support is unprecedented. Even the Congress is united.
Commerce's Claire Gaus just returned from a week of helping the Red Cross in New York, and she was overwhelmed with the individual acts of kindness shown by people of all ages, races, religions and backgrounds. Her impressions are recorded elsewhere in this newspaper, but she was a first-hand witness of (and for) the kinder side of America. The events of Sept. 11 were incredibly moving; the individual acts of kindness, goodness, tribute, recognition and generosity of the following days were more moving.
America, though attacked brutally, has responded with what may be its greatest outpouring of kindness in history. If the terrorists thought they could demoralize America, Americans are proving them wrong every day in every village, hamlet, city and state. They wanted to bring America to its knees, but seldom have Americans stood so tall as they have since Sept. 11.

Welcome To Commerce's New Chief Of Police
There's a new sheriff, well, police chief, in town. John Gaissert took the oath of office Monday morning. It's good to have him on board.
Gaissert was selected from an incredibly strong field of applicants, according to City Manager Clarence Bryant, so we know that we've got someone qualified, trained and competent to do the job.
He has pledged to lead by example, to bring respect back to a department tarnished by his successor. His reputation suggests that he will do just that. He will find a group of men and women anxious for strong, professional leadership, willing to give loyalty to a man who will work hard for them.
A prediction: the new chief will be more involved in the community, more approachable to officers and citizens alike, more respected and more deserving of respect and he will be a good steward of the taxpayers' money. The result will be better morale in the police department and better policing for the citizens. Welcome to Commerce, Chief.


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