Jackson County Opinions...

October 10, 2001

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
October 10, 2001

Not All Patriots Endorse Strike In Afghanistan
Amidst the flag waving, the desire for revenge and the debate over how to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorists' attacks, the question might be asked: "What constitutes patriotism?"
My most reliable dictionary defines it as "one's love for or devotion to country," but in times of national stress, it seems to have a far narrower definition in the minds of many.
Perhaps by the time you read this, we'll have news of attack on Afghanistan, but in the period of uncertainty before it becomes clear what that action will be, there is a lot of conversation about just what America should do. The responses cover a full range from nothing to using a nuclear weapon.
The American public seems inclined toward wanting a military response that includes punishment of Afghanistan for its harboring of the suspected mastermind Osama bin Laden, but there is a sizeable contingent that argues against war with Afghanistan on the grounds that, aside from the Taliban, Afghans are largely innocent of complicity in the attacks on America. That argument suggests that if we kill innocent civilians in our strikes, we are little better than the terrorists who struck us.
As the debate continues, we see the "patriotism" of those who oppose a full-scale attack called into question. Images of the Vietnam protesters are called forth; to oppose the government's policy is equated with being anti-American.
So, to some, being a patriot requires absolute devotion to country.
Put me down as one who thinks that concept of patriotism is simplistic ­ and wrong. One need not demonstrate love of country by accepting without question whatever policy the government adopts any more than one demonstrates good parenting by accepting without question whatever the child does.
Those of us who claim a religion, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam or some other, are required to put the principles of faith above even the call of our country. Our first allegiance is not to country or flag, but to our deity, and when the principles of religion conflict with the actions of state, our consciences should side with our religion.
That is easier said than done. Just as fanatical Muslims have used their religion to justify actions totally contrary to Islam, so are Christians tempted to abandon the teachings of Jesus to punish those who so ruthlessly attacked this country. If we learn one thing from history, it is that religion is often used to promote hatred and evil, as the Taliban is doing now.
It is neither un-American nor unpatriotic to question the government's purpose, policy or action. In fact, it is the very essence of being American, where we have freedom of thought and speech. Patriots ­ those who love their country ­ come in all sizes, shapes and colors, in all faiths and political parties. They also exhibit a huge variety of opinions about any subject under the sun. Those who condemn people with different opinions, who question their patriotism, are, ironically, guilty of the same narrow-mindedness exhibited by the Taliban, where disagreement with official beliefs or policies may result in being put to death.

The Jackson Herald
October 10, 2001

County handling of fire districts a good first step
In changing how fire district funds will be handled in 2002, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners has taken the first step toward putting some real accountability over those funds. Since fire district income will top $1 million next year, this is not chump change we're talking about. It's important for the public to know that its tax money is being handled correctly by all levels of government.
But this move is just a step and does not address all of the long-term issues of fire protection in the county. There are two related points that county leaders should ponder.
First is making sure that each fire district turns in an accurate and complete budget. Most of the districts failed to include their accumulated funds in their 2002 budget. Unaccounted for is over $400,000 in funds already in the hands of the 10 fire districts. Some of the district millage rates might be lowered if those dollars were included in the budget. In addition, all of the accumulated funds should be turned over to the county government in 2002 to be part of the county's audit process. The individual fire districts should not maintain independent bank accounts that fall outside the county's bookkeeping. One such fund was recently uncovered in the county road department and has badly shaken the faith of the public in how tax dollars are being treated by some public officials.
Second, changing the accounting process does not address the more fundamental question of what is best for fire protection in the county for the long term. The allocation of fire resources is done district-by-district and the financial resources of those districts vary widely. The West Jackson Fire District, the county's largest, has four times the financial resources of Plainview Fire District, the county's smallest. Perhaps that is an equitable balance since the West Jackson area has more homes and businesses to protect, but we're not sure of that because no one at the county level is looking at the "big picture" of overall fire protection. Related to that is the issue of full-time firefighters for some areas of the county. Some volunteer firefighters have resisted that idea, but we believe it deserves some debate and consideration as the county grows. But again, no one at the county level is looking at the long-term view.
Fire protection is important to any community. But it's also important that the money being used for fire protection be accounted for correctly and that it be allocated to benefit all the citizens of Jackson County.
The BOC has taken a step toward that end. We hope it won't be the last step taken.

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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
October 10, 2001

Tax digest grows and distorts
If you don't like paying property taxes, this column is sure to raise your disdain to a new level. Long maligned by critics, property taxation is the most unbalanced and unfair tax system around, except perhaps for the federal income tax system. Like federal income taxation, property taxation is full of loopholes and special exemptions. Not all property is considered equal in the eyes of our tax system.
One of the problems in Jackson County this year is that our overall tax digest, which is the total sum of all taxable property, grew much less than in recent years. This year, the digest grew only seven percent, the smallest increase since 1999. Two years ago, the digest jumped a whopping 33 percent and since 1994, the county's overall tax digest has climbed 112 percent to over $1 billion.
But that growth hasn't always been equal. Certain types of property have grown more than others, thus shifting the tax burden to different groups of people. On top of that, some tax districts in Jackson County are vastly different than others.
Take the difference between the Jackson County School System and the Jefferson City School System as one major example. This year, the county school system will get 45 percent of its tax revenue from residential property owners while the Jefferson system will get just 28 percent of its property tax income from homeowners. Because of its concentration of businesses, Jefferson will get 63 percent of its taxes from industry and commercial concerns. In the county system, businesses make up only 25 percent of the total tax income.
While those numbers are vastly different, the real difference between those two tax districts is in agriculture. The county school system will get 20 percent of its income from agricultural concerns while Jefferson only gets 2 percent from agriculture.
What really hits the county school system in those numbers is the erosion of its agricultural tax base due to a growth in special exemptions. Over $97 million is taken off the county system's tax digest from agricultural exemptions, especially the conservation use provision. Compounding that problem this year was the removal of farm equipment from the tax books, a move that didn't make any difference to the Jefferson tax digest, but which again chipped away the county school system's tax base.
What all that means is this: A mill of taxes in Jefferson has a dramatically different impact than a mill of taxes in the county school system. In Jefferson, businesses will pay 63 percent of that mill while in the county, 45 percent will be carried by homeowners.
From the perspective of the county government, all of that is meaningless. A mill of taxes for the county government is the same everywhere, except for fire district taxes which vary from district to district.
Still, the overall county digest is changing. For one thing, while the digest has seen huge growth, it's also been hit with a large growth in exemptions. From last year to this year, for example, the overall exemptions in the county digest grew 17 percent, more than twice the rate of the gross digest, which grew only eight percent. That means that fewer property owners are carrying the burden.
Perhaps one of the good signs in the county's digest is the continued growth in the business digest. Businesses pay a lot of taxes in any community, yet most firms don't create much governmental expense. Most homeowners, on the other hand, pay less taxes than the services they demand. This year, businesses make up 34.5 percent of the county's tax digest, an all-time high and a one-and-one-half percent increase over the year before.
On the other hand, agriculture continues to drop as a source of county government income. This year, agricultural property is only 16 percent of the total digest, down a full point from the year before. (Both residential property and motor vehicles remained virtually unchanged overall from the year before.)
But while the digest continues to shift and change, and despite the fact that it has more than doubled since 1994, most local government millage rates have stayed the same, or gone up. Even with the growth in sales taxes and specific service fees, local governments are still heavily dependent on property taxes to fund their operations.
For local school systems, that may be understandable. More people mean more students, which of course means more teachers and classrooms. In addition, school systems don't have the range of fees and income that municipal and county governments have.
But for local towns and the county government, one has to wonder why property tax rates have remained high despite the growing tax digest. In theory, at least, a more diverse and growing tax base should lower property tax rates over time.
Since 1994, that hasn't happened in Jackson County, save last year's one-time rate drop by the county government. This year, the county government's millage rate will be the highest it's been in over a decade.
All of which begs this final question: If we can't lower property tax rates when times are good and the county's tax digest is booming, then will we ever be able to lower them?
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Commerce News
October 10, 2001

Nicholson Council Not Worried About Law
If Nicholson wasn't already firmly established as the governmental laughingstock of the area, it became so last Monday night when councilmen Billy Kitchens and Chuck Wheeler declared several tracts of land "grandfathered" into the city limits.
The action came right after a pronouncement from the city attorney that such a move was illegal, over the objections of the city election superintendent, who said the same, and in spite of the opposition of the mayor and the other city council member. But, shoot, what does "legal" matter in Nicholson?
It should matter a great deal, but Kitchens and Wheeler appear more intent on getting things done their way than in following the law. Their position seems to be that by declaring something legal, it becomes legal. Exactly why they hired a city attorney is something of a mystery, since they chose to ignore his advice. But then again, once the two councilmen ignored his advice, city attorney Chris Elrod reversed his position and basically declared their action legal. The client, it seems, is always right.
Election superintendent Shelby Chester was to hold a hearing on the validity of Crawford's qualification as both an elector and a candidate. It may be that Crawford by that time had found evidence that his property was in the city, rendering the Kitchens-Wheeler motion moot. That aside, the action was an example of the kind of power grabbing that's been going on in Nicholson since those two were elected.
In this particular case, everyone in city government wanted to correct a possible oversight of 16-20 years ago when Bobby Crawford's property was supposedly to have been annexed. And while there is no record that it was, Crawford, his wife and four neighbors found their names on the Nicholson voter list and assumed their property had been annexed. While that is a disservice to those people, the only way to remedy the situation is to annex them legally. In the meantime, not only is Crawford ineligible to run for city council, but he, his wife and their neighbors are also ineligible to vote in Nicholson's upcoming election. If they do vote, any citizen or candidate for office will have no trouble getting the election ruled void.
Although the antics of city government may be amusing to people outside Nicholson, those whom it affects directly should be embarrassed by the total disregard for law and ethics demonstrated by Kitchens and Wheeler. Whether they (or their attorney) like it or not, the laws of Georgia apply to Nicholson. To vote or seek elected office, one must be a resident, and to become a resident through annexation, very specific steps must be taken. Any other means is illegal. Nicholson violated the law, plain and simple.

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