Jackson County Opinions...

March 6, 2002



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
March 6, 2002

Clinton Was Right: It Is The Economy, Stupid
"It's the economy, stupid," was Bill Clinton's motto when he ran for president in 1992. He was right.
Come to think of it, politics is always about the economy.
Whenever Congress or the Pentagon considers closing a military base, local officials fighting the closure argue first and foremost the economic impact on the community – not its role in the defense of the country. Military contracts for ships, tanks and airplanes are awarded for their economic impact on a politician's state or district – even when military officials say they do not need the ships, tanks or airplanes.
Today, however, it’s not just the economy. It’s the immediate economy, with little thought given to how today’s decisions will affect things in the long run.
Most recently, President George Bush shaped what might loosely be called his environmental policy on the advice of his Council of Economic Advisors. Responding to worldwide criticism after withdrawing from the Kyoto Treaty, Bush proposed "voluntary" restrictions on the emissions of so-called "greenhouse gases." The goal for reducing them, Bush declared, will be based on "output per unit of economic activity."
That means that industry will be allowed to emit more greenhouse gasses as long as production is higher. The idea seems to be that the environment can handle more pollution from widget manufacturers as long as the pollution per widget is less.
May I be un-American and propose that the economy should not always be the first, foremost and last consideration in forming public policy? Given that politicians, like Wall Street, are making policy with an eye on little more than quarterly or even monthly economic reports, public policy makers are too cowardly to make policy that has a negative short-term effect on the economy even if it is beneficial over the long-term.
That's why we have returned to deficit spending. Rather than using financial discipline (paying as we go), our leaders buy our support with tax cuts to stimulate the economy in the short term. It hasn't worked, but even if it did, is it moral to shove our debt back on some future generation just because we’re unwilling to pay for what we purchase?
The boom economy of the 1990s was fueled in large part by consumer debt. That made the boom unsustainable, but when the economy slowed, government's reaction was to try to convince consumers to continue the spending habits of the 90s. Financial advisors tell individuals to keep debt at a manageable level, but the health of the economy requires that both individuals and the government keep piling up debt.
The great irony is that if all Americans suddenly acquired responsible spending habits, the U.S. economy would collapse. It’s a vicious circle; the government wants consumers to increase their level of debt so the economy can provide the cash necessary to fund the undisciplined public spending needed to keep the economy rolling so American workers will have income to sustain their spending habits.
It really is the economy. Stupid!


Editorial
The Jackson Herald
March 6, 2002

A challenge to the BOC
Members of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners are apparently in denial about the firestorm of controversy they’ve created with their proposed site for a new courthouse. Rather than reacting to the public outcry with concern, board members have locked arms are marching in lock-step toward spending over $2 million to buy 157 acres for their ill-conceived plans.
But it isn’t just the site that is flawed — it’s the process this board took in arriving at that site. It was done in secret without any professional assessments and it was done without any effort to create a public consensus for the long-term.
Although the board has been incredibly arrogant in how it’s handled this issue, it’s also been politically shrewd. The board has set up a process so that in the end, it can blame the public for the Darnell Road site being selected.
Here’s their scheme: Following the 30-day written comment period, the board plans to hold four public meetings about the proposed site. Following those scripted dog-and-pony shows, the board will issue the following statement: “We’ve proposed a site and allowed public input. No one came to us with a better plan, so we’re moving forward with the Darnell Road site.”
Shrewd. Blame the public for not solving the board’s problem.
But evaluating sites for a new courthouse isn’t up to individual citizens in Jackson County. No citizen has the resources to do a credible job of making a serious counter-proposal. Nor, for that matter, should they have to. It’s the BOC’s job to define a process of evaluating various sites, solicit feedback, and then weigh the pros and cons of each proposed location. That’s THEIR job, not ours as citizens.
This board, however, has not looked seriously at other potential sites for a courthouse. It did not bother to meet with its own courthouse committee. It disregarded professional site assessments done several years ago by an independent consulting firm, assessments that cost taxpayers over $50,000. And it took all of its actions behind closed doors in secret.
Instead, the board is moving like a freight train toward a site it selected based on unidentified criteria and without any comparison to other potential locations.
But why is it important for this board to follow the right procedure in attempting to build public consensus around a site?
For one thing, the project is doomed without a broad public consensus. The options available to finance this project are limited. Because of the way this board has handled the issue, it cannot hope for voter approval of either a bond referendum or a SPLOST tax for a new courthouse. It has already killed two key financing options.
But even more importantly, the lack of a consensus kills this project politically for the long-term. The site being proposed will require major infrastructure upgrades that will take years to complete. It’s unlikely that future boards will be willing to follow through with the ill-conceived plans being proposed by the current board. This board can buy the land, but it cannot bind future boards to finish the roads or buildings it starts unless it has strong public support that will carry those forward into the future.
We would have thought that the overwhelming negative reaction to Gov. Barnes’ handling of the state flag issue last year would have taught political leaders a lesson. But the five men on the Jackson County BOC apparently weren’t paying attention because they have done with the site selection for a Jackson County courthouse exactly what Gov. Barnes did with the ugly new state flag — they made the decision in secret and then proclaimed themselves as being “progressive” for having “done something.”
But the public isn’t buying that. BOC members can delude themselves into thinking that the only folks upset about their plans are “a few lawyers around Jefferson,” but the reality is very, very different. People from all over Jackson County are questioning both the methods used and conclusions reached by this board to select a courthouse site. Many see both as being seriously flawed.
We challenge the BOC to hire a professional consulting firm to evaluate all the potential sites in Jefferson and to show the public the pros and cons of each.
If the board’s proposed site is so good, then why should it fear an apples-to-apples study?

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
March 6, 2002

Power-envy driving BOC actions
It’s not that I don’t like the individual members of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. As individuals, they’re all polite, reasonable, well-spoken men who like to talk politics.
But put those five guys together in a room and something terrible happens, a transformation that is almost frightening. One moment they’re clear-thinking individuals, the next they’re a five-headed Hydra, the creature from Greek mythology that ravaged the land around its lair.
The collective ego of the BOC is legend. But there is something else also going on, an underlying tension that has been difficult for me to put my finger on. The truth is, several of its members are driven by envy and bitterness that borders on the obsessive. That envy is directed toward anyone or any institution they perceive as a rival to their own power.
Currently this envy is focused on the towns in Jackson County and is especially aimed at Jefferson and anyone these BOC members see as “Jefferson leaders.”
It’s taken me a long time to grasp this strong undercurrent on the board. There’re been hints and whispers, but only with the courthouse issue on the table has the board’s inferiority complex risen to the surface.
It’s no secret that the BOC wants to consolidate its authority. It has moved to do that within county administration with a vengeance, not always without some justification.
Still, the board began to cross boundaries. It made an unsuccessful attempt to wrest control of the Jackson County Water and Sewer Authority. Then it made a successful charge on the planning commission, abolishing it and creating a new board with its own hand-picked members.
But in doing that, the BOC sent up a red flag. The planning commission was a joint city-county board, yet the BOC ignored the towns and made the change without their input. It then neutered the towns’ position on the board, essentially kicking them off the planning commission. When asked why, BOC members just shrugged and said, in effect, “We don’t need the towns, especially Jefferson.”
Now with the BOC’s proposed courthouse site, the underlying bitterness toward Jefferson has come to the fore in force. A major reason several BOC members are pushing the remote Darnell Road site is because they believe it sends a message to “Jefferson leaders” that it, the BOC, is now in control.
Anytime there are two or more government agencies in the same area, there will be tensions and conflict. That’s just the nature of politics. The BOC’s obsession with Jefferson, however, goes far beyond these innate tensions. Members of the BOC, a majority I’d say, believe “Jefferson leaders” have too much influence over the county’s politics.
It’s probably true that the leadership in Jefferson does have influence beyond its population size. But that’s because the town has a 200-year history as being a county seat. During those two centuries, institutions were born that tend to concentrate some of the county’s leadership into a smaller geographic area. Financial and business concerns tend to concentrate in towns. Larger religious, social, civic and cultural institutions tend to concentrate in towns. Education institutions tend to concentrate in towns. And indeed, the local political infrastructure tends to concentrate in towns which are the seats of county government. That’s true in every county in every state and Jefferson is no exception.
That is not to say Jefferson’s leadership is not without faults, as has been pointed out in this space many times over the years. Several Jefferson leaders were discussed in detail on this page last year, their political warts dissected for all the world to see.
But the current animosity coming out of the BOC aimed at what it considers “Jefferson leaders” goes beyond a simple disagreement over issues. It can only be explained by this observation: Several on the board, including chairman Harold Fletcher, apparently consider the concentration of leadership in Jefferson as a threat to their own political power. Therefore they have begun a deliberate campaign to undermine any Jefferson-based institution, or individual, they cannot control.
These board members believe they will have a receptive public to their Jefferson-bashing agenda. That might have been true 15 years ago when the county’s three school systems were fighting the “annexation wars” in court. In fact, this newspaper was a leading critic of Jefferson’s political decisions at that time. But those old issues have long since been resolved and the county is no longer polarized by that politics.
The truth is, citizens of Jefferson are also citizens of Jackson County. And because it is the county seat, all citizens in Jackson County are also citizens of Jefferson, if not in a legal sense, then certainly in spirit. The county courthouse, and by extension the county seat, belongs to all citizens. There is a relationship between the two that transcends legal definitions of residency.
Despite these unsavory attacks, it would be a mistake for Jefferson to overreact to the animosity coming from these BOC members. If calm heads prevail, the public will soon see, if it hasn’t already, the immature manifestations of this power struggle. Rather than amassing more power, the BOC is destroying its own credibility with the public.
And all because several members of the BOC have a bad case of power-envy.
But to paraphrase an old saying: It’s not the size of the office that counts; it’s what you do with it that matters most.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
March 6, 2002

Keep County Facilities
In Downtown Jefferson
If the Jackson County Board of Commissioners wishes to serve the best interests of this county, it should abandon its Darnell Road site for a new county government "campus" and put any new county facilities where they should be – in Jefferson.
The commissioners' belief that the 157-acre tract adjacent to the old county landfill is the best site for a series of new county facilities seems based as much on traffic considerations and opening up land for development as upon meeting citizens' needs. And both those concepts are far from certain advantages.
Much is said about Jefferson's traffic, particularly in regard to approaching the downtown from the east side. But much of Jefferson's traffic flow will be rerouted when the U.S. 129 bypass is finished. The bypass will siphon off all through traffic on U.S. 129, which now passes through the downtown, causing backups at the light in the center of town; and traffic destined for Jackson County Comprehensive High School will be reduced by more than half.
More troubling is the commissioners' assertion that the so-called "east bypass" or "Jackson County Parkway" will produce a boon of industrial development. The "build it and they will come" position appears to assume that close proximity to the county airport will be more attractive than similar proximity to Interstate 85 to future industries. Making that road a top priority means that the second phase of Progress Road – crucial to industrial development in the Commerce area – is off the front burner. Since Pattillo has more than 500 acres to develop and there are plenty of fine industrial sites along I-85 and U.S. 129, the creation of new industrial sites is not the priority it once was. Besides, the commissioners say they plan to build that road regardless of where the county government is a complex, so opening up land to development becomes a moot point in siting the government complex.
The commissioners take pride in "thinking outside the box," but abandoning the traditional home of county government and starting from scratch is no more creative than building a strip mall at the edge of the city limits and is just as destructive to the community. Commerce residents have long supported redevelopment efforts downtown; there was considerable interest in keeping the U.S. Post Office in town for that purpose. For the same reason, we should support the viability of all of our communities' downtowns, and the county government facilities are important to Jefferson.
The argument that there is insufficient room in Jefferson for county facilities doesn't hold water. There is plenty of land available as the Leo Daly site assessment determined and there is other land available than what the Daly plan proposed.
That brings us to another objection to the commissioners' site selection. It was done in secrecy with no other input than the board of commissioners. Now, after the fact, the commissioners will hold public hearings. The previous board of commissioners at least gathered a group of local citizens and hired a consulting firm, which studied multiple sites before reaching a recommendation. This board solicited no such input and its public hearings are after-the-fact since the only proposal on the table is their own.
Finally, the Darnell Road may be geographically in the center of the county, but it remains an out-of-the-way location apt to be found only by those looking for it. The commissioners’ presumption that this area will one day be a center of industry is speculation – even if that should happen, county government facilities might not be all that good a mix. Right now it looks like government-funded sprawl.
The seat of Jackson County government should remain in Jefferson – in or near the downtown.


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