Jackson County Opinions...

JANUARY 29, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
January 29, 2003

Shades Of Jerry Waddell
And Fran Thomas
Does anyone remember when Jerry Waddell and Fran Thomas were county commissioners?
They're back, but with new bodies known as Harold Fletcher, Sammy Thomason, Stacey Britt, Tony Beatty and Emil Beshara.
Waddell and Thomas ran successfully against the so-called status quo and in the early to mid-90s set about to reshape the county government. They appointed like-minded people to the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority and the Jackson County Industrial Development Authority. They took over the economic development effort of Jackson County and kicked the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce out of its office in the County Administrative Building. They went to war against the chamber, Commerce and Jefferson.
Ultimately, they were run out of office, but the years they served were full of controversy and angst. Today's power struggle featuring the five-member board of commissioners is following closely in their footsteps.
They share the same arrogance; they think they know everything about everything and that, just by gaining control, they can solve all problems. They covet total control so all government will reflect their wishes. They want political revenge. They want to see their pictures in the newspaper whenever anything resembling progress occurs.
The Five Wise Men wish to impose their will across the board. They've rebuilt the Jackson County Planning Commission. They're trying to re-shape the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority and the airport authority. They're determined to take economic development responsibilities out of the business community (chamber of commerce). They want to dictate to the Board of Health the parameters for safe placement of residential septic tanks so developers can squeeze more homes into each subdivision.
If only every decision in Jackson County could be made by the Five Wise Men, they reason, all would be right with the world.
At the center is county manager Al Crace whose disease of speaking at length without saying anything has already infected Fletcher, Britt and Beshara. Crace anchors the burgeoning county bureaucracy and acts as gatekeeper to assure that any proposed action has been reviewed, processed, turned over to a consultant, forgotten about, blamed on someone else or stacked in a corner somewhere in the hope no one will ever recall it.
Don't misunderstand. There are areas where this government excels. They include adding layers to the bureaucracy, political doublespeak, making simple matters complicated and obscuring the truth.
For now, they are getting away with it, just as Waddell and Thomas did in the mid-90s. The good news is that it won't last forever. The voters are starting to figure out Fletcher, Thomason, Britt, Beshara and Beatty. The bad news is it might be too late.
When Waddell left office, he wound up running the water and sewerage authority, where, as far as I can tell, he’s done a decent job. Maybe Fletcher’s post-commissioner plan involves running the county’s water and sewer department


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
January 29, 2003

Let your voice be heard Thursday night
The future course of Jackson County’s government will be on the line at a public meeting Thursday night. At issue is a proposal by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to takeover the county water authority.
Every citizen who cares about the direction of Jackson County’s government should plan to be at the JEMC auditorium in Jefferson at 7 p.m. for this meeting.
Over the last three weeks, we have used this space to outline why we think that proposal is a bad idea for the citizens of Jackson County.
We have argued that there should be checks and balances in local government and that an independent water authority is an important part of that process.
We have argued that one of the underlying reasons for the takeover effort is political. Two members of the BOC are involved in real estate and would have a huge conflict of interest in having their hands on the direction of the county’s water and sewerage infrastructure. They don’t seem to care. Doing favors for friends is just part of their game.
We have argued that another underlying reason is personal. At least two BOC members hold strong personal grudges against the manager of the county’s water system. That personality conflict is evident from comments made by those two members about the water authority and that individual.
We have argued that for the most part, the county water authority has done a good job for our citizens. It has been fiscally responsible. Yes, it sometimes has to say “No” when a proposed line isn’t cost effective. But put that decision in the hands of elected officials, as the BOC wants to do, and fiscal responsibility will be tossed out the window in favor of political expediency. Friends and favoritism will rule. Water and sewerage decisions will be based on who you know and who you owe, not on financial responsibility. An appointed authority can say “No” easier than an elected commission.

Members of the BOC responded to this by attempting to trump up allegations of mismanagement by the authority. When that fell on deaf ears, they changed strategy to say that well, they would leave the water authority in place to oversee the SPLOST projects.
But what they didn’t say was that the SPLOST projects will be completed in a couple of years, thus making the authority a board without a mission. Nor does the BOC address the issue of sewerage and who will control when and where sewerage lines will be placed. Of course, the BOC intends to take that away from the water authority. That’s why they don’t talk about it.
During the last week, the BOC has adopted a different argument, saying that since the water authority can’t pay the Bear Creek debt, the BOC should take it over.
But what the BOC doesn’t say is that the Bear Creek debt is a county debt, not a water authority debt. As funds become available, the authority does intend to reimburse the county on that debt as provided for in a contract between the two groups.
But the BOC has distorted the Bear Creek issue to make it appear the authority is in default. That is not true and is just another red herring the board is using in an attempt to divert attention away from its real agenda: To get control of the county’s water and sewerage infrastructure for itself.

But while the meeting Thursday night is to debate the water authority takeover effort, the issue is really much larger than that. Over the last two years, this board of commissioners has marched out of step with county citizens on a variety of issues. It has done so with a level of arrogance and intimidation that we find appalling for a local government. Consider that board’s history:
• In December 2001, the board abolished the joint city-county planning commission without even consulting the cities which were its partners. In fact, BOC members were very upset when news of the abolition leaked and was published in this newspaper ahead of the vote. Board members had wanted to keep their dirty work secret until they made their move. Although the BOC recreated the authority, it gutted the seats held by the towns and then put all members on a one-year term as an act of intimidation.
• In the winter and spring of 2002, the board met in secret and decided to purchase 160 acres in a remote area for a new courthouse. It made that decision without looking at any other potential sites in or around Jefferson, the county seat. In public, the board said “no decision had been made,” but in private board members laughed and said no one would stop them from buying the property and putting the courthouse at that site. The board dismissed public input throughout the entire process.
• And now, the board wants to takeover the county water authority. It can give no legitimate reason for that move and it has again dismissed public input. Thursday’s meeting is not being held by the BOC, but rather by the water authority. The BOC doesn’t want any public input to hinder its decision.

It is clear to us that this board of commissioners is intent on consolidating its power over every aspect of county government.
It does not care if that is in the best interest of county citizens.
It does not care about public input. Time and time again, this board has arrogantly pursued its goal of absolute control, the public be damned.
That is why Thursday’s meeting is so important.
By attending Thursday’s meeting, you will send a message that this board’s effort to intimidate and dismiss public opinion has failed.
This BOC is nothing more than a collection of bullies, and bullies thrive on exploiting weakness. If we as citizens cower and wring our hands, that board will just keep on with its efforts to intimidate anyone who stands in its way.
It’s time to stand up to this bully, to call his bluff and to make our voices heard.
Attend Thursday night’s meeting. Your presence will speak louder than words.

Jackson County Opinion Index

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
January 29, 2003

Courthouse tag of $22 million is just the start of sticker shock
Quick, bring me the smelling salts! I’m passed out on the floor. Sticker shock has made my head spin. I’m dizzy. The room continues to spin.
If Fred Sanford were here, he’d be grabbing his chest and screaming, “It’s the big one!”
Well, it is a big one. But rather than grabbing your chest, you’d better grab your wallet and hold on tight. The county government wants to pick more from your pocket.
And it’s the big one.
In case you missed the story, tentative estimates for a new county judicial center of 115,000 sq. ft. top $22 million.
That does not include the $2 million the county paid to buy 160 acres on Darnell Road for a “campus” of county buildings, including a judicial center.
That does not include the millions and millions it will take to build a four-lane road to access the site on Darnell Road between Hwy. 15 and Hwy. 82.
That does not include the cost of removing what may be tons and tons of rock beneath the surface of that land.
That does not include the cost of furnishing the building.
That does not include building for the future, but for today. Two additional phases are outlined to cover the growth over 25 years.
That does not include a new administrative building to be built sometime in the future.
It does not include a building reality: The cost of construction is always more than you thought it would be.
And just think, county leaders were aghast in 1998 when another firm estimated a combined new judicial/administrative complex would cost $16 million for 102,000 sq. ft. in downtown Jefferson.
Now, I’m not a financial wizard. But even I can see that the “campus” concept on Darnell Road is going to cost millions and millions of dollars more than everyone anticipated. By the time this project is done, if it is indeed done similar to the preliminary plans, the county government could spend $35-$40 million on Darnell Road not including financing costs. And that’s just for a judicial center and not a new administrative building.
Oh, I feel the big one coming on!
There is no doubt the county needs a new judicial center and administrative building. But how much can Jackson County afford?
That question remains unclear. So far, the board of commissioners has not held any public discussion about how it plans to pay for this proposed project. It has, however, started the paperwork to create a county building authority. That is sure to be used as the financing vehicle for the courthouse.
But the question remains, how will it be paid for?
One commissioner, Emil Beshara, has gone on record as only favoring a SPLOST tax to finance the project. But Beshara wants to do that after the project has already begun, thus forcing voters to approve a SPLOST, or be faced with a property tax hike.
That’s like asking if you want to be killed with a bullet or a knife — the method is different, but the outcome is the same.
Others on the BOC have not said how they intend to pay for this project except that they do not want a bond referendum. To issue bonds would require a vote of the public and this board is loathe to allow the public to make that decision.
Even if Beshara should get his way and a SPLOST tax is proposed, it will have to be approved by voters. Given the arrogance of this board, voters may just vote down such a SPLOST in an effort to reassert control over county government.
The courthouse project has not even begun yet and already things are spinning out of control. The cost of this project exceeds the county’s ability to pay and the result will be a financial mess for years to come.
And higher property taxes. Much higher.
If this project had been done correctly, that is with a real site selection process, adequate public input and some effort toward financial constraints, the public would probably have supported a bond referendum or a SPLOST to build a new courthouse.
But it was not done correctly and the public, by-and-large, does not support the remote Darnell Road site for these county facilities.
Now with a tentative price tag on the table, and more costs to come, the issue will get more scrutiny than ever.
The BOC may not think it needs public support to carry out its grand scheme on Darnell Road, but in the end public support will be critical. Without public support, the project will never be completed.
And the result of this board’s mishandling will be a shell of a building, a monument, perhaps, to the ego and shallowness of its builders.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.



Editorial
The Commerce News
January 29, 2003

Public Support Only
Hope Of Stopping BOC
Should the operation of the Jackson County water and sewer system be managed by an apolitical board of citizens or should it be managed by politicians? Citizens interested in the outcome of that debate, which has been raging for weeks, can have their say Thursday night in a public hearing at Jackson EMC.
The county commissioners are trying to expand their power by taking over the authority and making its members more beholden to the commissioners. The board of commissioners has already done the same to the Jackson County Planning Commission, is altering the Jackson County Airport Authority and appears interested in challenging the Jackson County Board of Health.
But few issues are more important to the county's future than the operation of its water and sewer system. As Elton Collins, the water authority chairman, notes, water and sewer lines are the equivalent in importance of paved roads during the 1950s. They will determine how the county develops.
To date, the various men and women who have served on the water and sewerage authority have been concerned only with getting water lines to the most people at the least cost. In spite of occasional pressure from the commissioners, they've managed to keep politics out of the process. But with the election of commissioners Harold Fletcher, Stacey Britt, Emil Beshara, Tony Beatty and Sammy Thomason, the pressure has mounted to the point that the board of commissioners seek total control.
Why is that? The commissioners endlessly repeat the mantra of "accountability to the voters," which could be a viable reason. However, the board of commissioners has shown a propensity toward micromanagement which, coupled with the "we know everything" attitude, cripples the board of commissioners' ability to make rational decisions. In spite of creating new staff positions to support the BOC, its meetings often drag on for hours as the commissioners nit-pick every issue, ignore advice from people they've appointed to give advice and finally make decisions that are as influenced by politics and personal motives as much as by reason. Jackson County's board of commissioners has seldom been more inefficient or less interested in the public's opinion.
But public opinion is exactly what Thursday's meeting is all about – a meeting called by the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority, not the BOC. The authority has not only expressed interest in hearing from the citizens, but it has also indicated it will be guided by the wishes of the citizens.
The commissioners have not been up front about their intentions. Less than a year ago, chairman Harold Fletcher stated publicly that the board of commissioners had no rift with the authority – that such talk was a fabrication of the county's newspapers. Time has proven that the chairman lied and casts a deep shadow of suspicion over the commissioners' claims that the takeover has anything to do with accountability.
Today, the commissioners insist that they have no plan to “take over” the authority. They just want to manage day-to-day operations, control all the money, determine the operating budget and keep authority members on a tight rein. They will reserve the right of the authority to determine where sales tax funded lines are built, but any member who crosses a commissioner on that topic is not likely to be reappointed and any projects not funded by SPLOST will be determined by the board of commissioners.
The only hope of stopping the commissioners is for a strong public show of support Thursday night for an independent water and sewerage authority. If the public stays home, the commissioners will feel free to continue their consolidation of power, which, rather than public service, is the board of commissioners' only concern.


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