Jackson County Opinions...

AUGUST 28, 2002



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
August 28, 2002

And We Used To Just Take
It For Granted
It stands to reason that as the current drought worsens, public policy regarding how the state manages its water should make headlines. The burning question to be resolved yesterday (Tuesday) by a legislative study committee seemed to relate to who owns the water.
Georgians have hardly had to worry about that until Atlanta's growth began to dry up the Chattahoochee; now Georgia, Alabama and Florida all claim rights of ownership.
In general, the public has expressed little disagreement with the idea that the state owns the water in its major rivers. But when it comes to the water in the smaller streams that feeds those rivers and the water in the ground that also feeds those rivers, the agreement dissolves faster than two Alka Seltzer tablets in a glass of Commerce water.
Georgia regulates water in a small way by its permitting for private, municipal and agricultural wells. It has guidelines for users of major amounts of water, but anyone with a creek running through the back yard can water his yard from the creek, and getting a permit to dam the creek to create a pond or small lake is not difficult, assuming no wetlands are at stake.
Only the current drought is taking the EPD's focus away from water quality to consider ownership of water. Given the state's rapid growth and the limited availability of the Chattahoochee River to serve Atlanta, it is only a matter of time before the EPD turns its regulatory eyes toward water use from smaller streams and ponds and from the ground by individual wells. Currently, if you use less than 100,000 gallons per day, you don't even need a permit.
All water is connected. The little creek in Commerce feeds the North Oconee River and, eventually, the Savannah River. Every gallon taken out of feeder creeks to keep fescue green or tomato plants from wilting is a gallon less going downstream. Everybody on every creek and river thinks they deserve water.
If everybody wants a piece of the pie, somebody has to divvy it up. It is inevitable that the state will assume that role, which is slightly less frightening than having no one in charge. Imagine a time when there is no more water left for Atlanta to suck from the Chattahoochee River. That done, it is easy to see Georgia, as "owner" of all water, diverting water from the Bear Creek Reservoir, the Commerce reservoir or any impoundment, to meet Atlanta's need.
It doesn’t require a crystal ball to foresee that Georgia will by mid-century have outgrown its current water resources. The good news is that we still have time to implement conservation measures, employ water-saving technology and landscaping practices and maybe even develop new sources. As the crunch gets bigger (especially during dry years), we can expect to see debates on the topic. Water ownership, its responsible use, more regulations and higher prices will be issues.
(Federal environmental regulations require the owners of reservoirs to maintain a certain flow downstream, yet another complication.)
The days of taking water for granted appear to be shortening.


Editorial
The Jackson Herald
August 28, 2002

Time for professional traffic study in Jefferson
Traffic around Jefferson city schools is a mess. That’s no secret to anyone with children attending the schools and who has sat in frustratingly long lines to drop-off or pick-up their children.
Monday, and then again Tuesday, that traffic congestion was partly responsible for two accidents involving 9-year-old children who darted in front of cars on Hoschton Street.
Fortunately, those injuries weren’t life-threatening. But what about the next time?
Indeed, there’s bound to be a next time unless city officials devise a better transportation plan for the Old Pendergrass Road and Hoschton Street area. There’s simply too much traffic on too few roads in the midst of too many children.
The main traffic problem is that every vehicle going to the elementary school, and a large number going to the new middle school, have to go through the four-way stop intersection of those two streets. In addition, traffic going to the fifth-grade academy across the street and some of the high school traffic also goes through the intersection, causing massive backups in every direction.
And that’s not to even mention traffic from people living in the area attempting to get to work in the mornings or home in the afternoons.
From 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. and again between 2:45 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. it is impossible to go in any direction in that part of town. That is why a number of frustrated parents, including the father of the little girl injured Monday, park across the street and walk to the school to pick up their children.
But the school traffic isn’t the only issue. Less than a mile from that bottleneck is the intersection of Old Pendergrass Road and the new Jefferson by-pass. That intersection is destined to be a major commercial center in the future because of its key proximity to the county’s main growth corridor.
Commercial development in that area, in addition to a number of new subdivisions being built along Old Pendergrass Road, will only increase the traffic through that four-way bottleneck.
School officials have attempted various traffic routing plans and are currently exploring new alternatives in light of this week’s accidents. But while there are some things school leaders can do to help the situation, the long-term solution is for the city to engineer and build one or two more access points to Old Pendergrass Road in addition to the one four-way intersection.
We don’t have a particular route in mind. Indeed, we believe that decision is best arrived by doing a professional traffic study in that area.
Whatever is done, however, should not be just a band-aid fix. A long-term plan should be devised to address both school traffic at peak times and the increased traffic flow due to commercial and residential growth in the area.
Anything less than that will be an invitation for another tragedy.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
August 28, 2002

Tax hike slated for courthouse project
If you’re wondering how the Jackson County government is going to pay for its ill-conceived plans to build a new courthouse, there’s a simple answer — they are going to raise your taxes.
Although the Jackson County Board of Commissioners has not held a single public meeting to discuss financing the plans, behind-the-scenes maneuvering by chairman Harold Fletcher and his sidekick, commissioner Sammy Thomason, are setting up a plan designed to avoid any public input or debate over the financing.
What the two commissioners are planning is a way to commit the county to $20-$30 million in long-term debt without having any kind of public vote. Indeed, the very essence of their plan is to avoid any kind of public input, or for that matter, board debate.
While the BOC has not yet discussed the financing of the project, at the request of Thomason, the county finance department did run some numbers in February about how the project could be paid for.
The February numbers used a base amount of $10 million for its calculation of financing for 25 years. That, of course, is less than half the actual amount needed to pay for the project, land and roads.
But here’s the interesting part — the county would only pay interest on the loan during the construction phase, then roll over into a long-term loan once the building was complete. That would keep the amount needed to finance the project low until — make a guess here — after the re-election campaigns of Fletcher and Thomason.
How convenient.
The amount of the tax hike would, of course, depend on the amount borrowed. If the assumptions made in the February projections are accurate, and I have no reason to doubt that they are, to finance $20 million would raise property taxes by about 1/3 mill for the first three years, then jump to around a 1/2 mill increase for the following five years, then declining after that as the tax digest grows.
But there’s another wrinkle to this issue as well. Some of the commissioners, notably Emil Beshara, have gone on record as being in favor of using the next SPLOST to finance the courthouse and not raise property taxes.
But the next SPLOST vote won’t be until 2004, past the time when Fletcher and Thomason want to get the project going. (Indeed Fletcher was overheard bragging to commissioner Stacey Britt on election night that with commissioners Beshara and Tony Beatty re-elected and Thomason in a “safe” seat, even if both Britt and Fletcher were defeated, the county’s agenda would go forward, meaning, of course, the courthouse would not be stopped.)
All of this means that voters could face a SPLOST vote with a gun being held to their heads. The BOC could come to voters and say, “Either support this SPLOST to pay for the courthouse, or we’re going to raise your property taxes.”
Some choice.
But that, of course, is exactly what Thomason and Fletcher want. They intend to pursue their courthouse agenda by running roughshod over the public. All they need is one other vote on the BOC to get their way and so far, they’ve managed to secure that every time they need it.
This project, however, is not pocket change. Voters should have some voice in whether or not they want to be committed to $20-$30 million in debt for the next 25 years.
If the project was sound, I think voters would approve a SPLOST, or bond referendum, to build a new courthouse.
But this project is not sound. The location is on the fringe of town that will take millions of dollars to access with new roads. Even then, it will be inaccessible to a majority of Jackson County citizens.
The taxpayers who will pay for that project have so far been shut out of the process, save for a few dog-and-pony public hearings last spring.
Now the BOC wants to finance this project without any kind of public input or vote. They don’t even want to talk about it among themselves in a public meeting. (As evidence of that, read the story about Tuesday night’s BOC meeting elsewhere in this edition.) They simply want to raise taxes and get the doziers moving.
It’s madness. The taxpayers of Jackson County should not be forced into such a large debt without some kind of vote.
But that will never happen because Fletcher and Thomason know any kind of public vote on their courthouse project would fail. They know that voters would never approve financing a new courthouse on Darnell Road. Thus, their plan is to put the financing deal together without any public discussion or debate, ram it through their own board, and move forward.
The next time you read about the courthouse financing, it will be a done deal. The BOC will vote, with no public discussion, and you, the taxpayers, will be in debt for 25 years to pay for a monument to the egos of Fletcher and Thomason.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
August 28, 2002

HOPE Puts Minorities At Further Disadvantage
An analysis by a Harvard University program of so-called "merit based scholarships" confirms what anyone looking at the situation could see about Georgia's HOPE Scholarship program: that those most in need of financial help are the least likely to receive it through the lottery-funded program.
The findings are not unique to this state by any means, but since Georgia instituted the HOPE Scholarship in 1993, the percentage of minority students attending the state's major colleges has declined while attendance among white students has increased.
There's a simple explanation: HOPE funds have encouraged more kids to go to college and more college-bound Georgia students to stay in the state. This, in turn, has caused schools like the University of Georgia to increase their standards, which makes it harder for minority students to make the cut, particularly with all racial preferences eliminated.
The academic standards are so high now that many successful UGA graduates earning a good living now can look at the UGA admissions requirements and ponder that, had they been in place 20 years ago, they could not have gotten in. Today's UGA freshmen have an average SAT score of 1,215 and an average high school gradepoint average of 3.71. Both climb every year.
It is hard to argue with merit-based scholarships, but disadvantaged children – which includes many minority students – find it difficult to compete for admissions at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. It was difficult enough before every kid with a 3.0 average got college funding; now it is especially challenging. The end result is declining black enrollment in Georgia's premier colleges and, most likely, a reduction in the enrollment of all economically disadvantaged students. In addition, the costs of tuition and other related expense at major colleges have risen so much in the past decade as to make HOPE funding less significant in the face of the total cost.
Many argue that the lottery is a regressive tax that takes money from those who can least afford it and gives it to the wealthy. That argument would be less compelling if the state could find a way to incorporate need into the HOPE formula. The lottery-funded scholarship program should bring more hope to parents of minority and other economically disadvantaged students.

The author of the editorial has a son and daughter, each of whom has attended college with tuition grants funded by the HOPE Scholarship.


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