Jackson County Opinions...

April 24, 2002



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
April 24, 2002

Group Brings
Attention To Our
Responsibilities
Unless you're a farmer, you've probably never heard of the Oconee River Soil and Water Conservation District, much less been aware of "Soil and Water Stewardship Week," which just happens to be this week.
It's one of those observances that shows up on some obscure calendar like "National Pie Day" (which one of the classes at Commerce Elementary School actually celebrated) that largely slips by unobserved.
At one time, it was just Soil Stewardship Week, it apparently having originated at a time when large-scale erosion of farm land was the issue. Later, as we became aware of the damages caused to streams and lakes by erosion and pollution (often caused by erosion), the stewardship of water resources was added. Today, stewardship of everything is always an issue: water, soil, clean air, trees and wildlife, and it all ties together.
But it is never a front-burner issue with the general public, so groups like the Oconee River Soil and Water Conservation District, the Nature Conservancy, Arbor Day Foundation, Audubon Society and other try in various ways to focus public attention on environment-friendly living.
The ORS&WD's emphasis this week is on trees. It notes that trees provide valuable services and products not limited to the farm or wood lot. The tree in an urban environment provides habitat and food for wildlife; it also helps remove pollutants, reduce runoffs from rainstorm and moderates the high temperatures during the summer.
The ORS&WD has also tried to restore locally one of America's beloved hardwood trees. For five years, it has provided Sweet Hart chestnut tree seedlings. Most native chestnuts were wiped out between 1904 and 1930 by a fungus.
In this part of Georgia, the loss of woods and meadows to development makes it important that individual property owners do what they can to mitigate the degradation that comes with growth. Even in an urban setting, there are many things that will help. Everyone can plant trees, flowers and shrubs that offer food and cover for critters from honeybees to songbirds to chipmunks while providing an inviting environment for people. Native plants and grasses require less water and fewer chemicals; the tolerance of weeds in a yard not only improves habitat for beneficial insects and birds, but it also reduces herbicide and insecticide use, which contribute to water pollution.
There is a slowly growing realization that the picture-perfect grass lawn is as barren as a desert for the earthworms and insects songbirds need to survive, a growing appreciation for native plants because they require less water and maintenance and a recognition that chemicals applied to the yard end up in the groundwater. One by one, property owners are learning that they can make their acre or half acre a respite for wildlife.
The Oconee River Soil and Water Conservation District is a contributor. Its Soil and Water Stewardship Week may be little noted, but every bit of recognition of our responsibility to the environment helps.
Plant a tree, go native with grasses, flowers and shrubs; cut down on the chemicals. We can all be good stewards of our little bits of Earth.


Editorial
The Jackson Herald
April 24, 2002

BOC continues nonsense propaganda
Taxpayers ought to be very concerned at the ongoing political propaganda coming from the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
It is obvious that the board fancies itself as some kind of rump Politburo that wants to control every decision in the county. Board members believe, wrongly, that since they are THE elected officials in county government, all decision-making and power flows from them to the citizens, not the other way around.
Last week, the BOC’s hunger to control surfaced again when county manager Al Crace repeated the BOC propaganda that the water authority had not been spending taxpayer money correctly. BOC member Stacey Britt had made similar statements during an earlier board meeting.
That Crace is now toting the anti-water authority cause is to be expected. He’s the foil in chairman Harold Fletcher’s hand, the “bad guy” alter ego for the chairman. When Crace speaks, watch for Fletcher’s arm running up his back.
What the BOC is really angry about, especially Fletcher, is that former county commission chairman Jerry Waddell is employed by the water authority as its manager. Fletcher is intensely jealous of Waddell and wants to have him fired. That sentiment is shared by some other BOC members also, members who believe nothing good was ever done in county government until their own arrival in office last year. To them, Waddell is the bane of all that is wrong in Jackson County.
So the real dispute between the BOC and water authority is not about financial mismanagement, but rather is about egos, power and control. Allegations that the water board mismanaged funds is nothing but propaganda designed to discredit the water authority, perhaps opening a door for the BOC to step in and take over.
And there’s one more thing: Both Fletcher and Britt are involved in real estate in the county. One has to wonder if their eagerness to take over the water authority is because they want to personally control where water and sewer is put in Jackson County to help themselves and their friends.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
April 24, 2002

JCCI report shows pros and cons of prison camp
Should Jackson County keep its prison camp? That was the question behind a recent study of the Jackson County Correctional Institute. As reported earlier, the conclusion of that study was that the JCCI was valuable to the county government’s operations and was financially beneficial for taxpayers.
I’ve read the study and I don’t have any particular qualms with the conclusions reached. It is obvious, however, that changes will be coming to the prison in the future as the county grows.
It cost local taxpayers a little over $1 million per year to maintain the facility above the amount paid by the state. But according to the study, to hire the labor to do the various functions now being done by inmates would cost taxpayers an additional $3 million.
Out of 170 inmates, around 150 are doing work with 113 of those working outside the prison itself. So what are they doing?
Inmates are used to operate equipment in the county road department, to maintain county vehicles, to operate the county’s solid waste system and to provide support duties for several other county departments and agencies.
But as the report pointed out, while there is a financial benefit to inmate labor, there are some problems as well. For one thing, the inmate population is largely unskilled and their ability to absorb training is “limited.” That becomes a major problem in some of the skilled positions, such as operating equipment in the road department.
Administratively, the report calls for a number of changes. For one thing, many of the guards overseeing the prisoners do not report to the warden, but are rather employees of the department where the detail works. The report calls for a change in that system to have all guards working for, and reporting to, the JCCI warden.
In addition, some of the work done by prison labor is inefficient compared to hired labor. Prisoners can’t be disciplined for refusing to work and work stoppages and intentional damage to county equipment are ongoing problems. There are no incentives, the report says, for prison labor to “produce outstanding work.” In the road department, the daily production is less with prison labor than what it would be with hired labor. The report goes on to say that the county should “foresee replacing its most important positions (those of heavy equipment operators) with hired employees in the future.”
That inefficiency is also noted in some other departments, along with problems of inmates having inappropriate contact with females outside the prison.
The report suggests that several new positions be created at the JCCI to better manage the inmate labor and that a system of rewards be established to encourage more productive work.
The question county policy makers will have to decide in the coming years is how much trouble is the JCCI compared to the money it saves in labor? While using prison labor may save money, there are costs to inefficiency that are inherent in the system. Many of those in prison do not have a work ethic and most lack both the necessary skills to be productive and the ability to learn those skills.
The bottom line: Using prison labor is cheap, but we’re getting what we pay for.

***

Remember all the carping last year when the new Jackson County Board of Commissioners took office about the lack of funds? Later in the year, the board dramatically raised the tax rate to above previous levels, blaming the action on the previous board.
Well, it turns out that while the tax rate cut in 2000 did reduce the county’s reserve funds, it did not put the county into financial ruin. In March 2001, the county had some $5.4 million in cash on hand and now, just a year later, over $8 million in cash on hand, largely due to the higher tax rate.
As a rule, the county should have about 25 percent of its budget in cash reserves. It now has that in place.
The “old” board probably did cut the tax rate a little too much, but the “new” board raised it back up too much too quick.
That could change, however, if sales tax income drags this year. But the BOC apparently doesn’t think it will because it has been pushing the water authority to borrow a lot of money based on a growth in SPLOST funds this year. The authority did borrow $5 million, $2 million less than what the BOC wanted.
The next big item to study will be the 2001 audit this summer. Until then, it’s getting hard to tell if the BOC is fiscally conservative or liberal. It shows signs of both and has been inconsistent in the messages it sends out about the county’s financial condition.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
April 24, 2002

Miller’s Proposal Sets
A Horrible Precedent
Sen. Zell "Bomb Hell out of Them" Miller has figured out how to get the votes of Georgia teachers – exempt them from federal income tax.
Miller is introducing a bill that would cut federal taxes for teachers – eliminating them for the most experienced teachers – to the tune of about $16 billion a year. In addition to the election benefits, the move would make teaching more attractive in a time of growing teacher shortages.
There are two major problems with Miller's approach. First, it amounts to a tax shift. The $16 billion annual savings to one group of taxpayers must be borne by others; the alternative is to add another $16 billion in deficit spending, which is fiscally irresponsible.
Second, it sets a dangerous precedent in providing tax exemptions for one profession of taxpayers. The nation also faces a critical shortage of nurses. Should not that profession be encouraged with tax exemptions? Given time, the sort of exemptions that have made the federal tax code so complicated that some people are calling for a simplified "flat tax" will be applied to creating a multitude of new exemptions by occupation. Every special interest group in America will have a reason why its members should be exempted from some or all income taxes. Once that precedent is set, it will be hard to justify denying exemptions to the next worthy group.
Miller's proposed legislation accepts the premise that income is the primary cause of the teacher shortage. Actually, the major problems are the immense state-federal bureaucracy that keeps teachers engaged in activities other than teaching and the loss of authority in their classrooms. If federal and state government would let teachers teach, educators could live with the salaries being offered. After all, the greatest loss of teachers is those who leave education, fed up after a few short years by the paperwork and bureaucracy.
Miller's bill puts members of Congress in a no-win situation. If they support the bill, they're creating havoc with the tax system. If they oppose it, they can be portrayed by future opponents as anti-education. It is a lose-lose situation if ever there was one. Frankly, we expect better out of Sen. Miller.


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