Jackson County Opinions...

FEBRUARY 5, 2003

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
February 5, 2003

Payment Of
Reservoir Debt
Won’t Be Affected
One question from Thursday night's public forum on the board of commissioners/water authority controversy bears answering.
Who will pay for the debt on the Bear Creek Reservoir?
Judging from the comments made by Emil Beshara and those made privately by his fellow commissioners who lacked the (you know) to face the public, you'd think that the issue of "who pays" hangs on control of the water and sewerage authority.
It doesn't.
Two groups of people will likely pay for the reservoir. The first are Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority customers. The second group is the taxpayers, you and I.
The water authority is threatening to let the board of commissioners pay the "county's" debt, but that's just a tactic in this political struggle.
Semantics aside, all parties know that the commissioners (and taxpayers) are ultimately responsible for the debt. Likewise, all parties know that the water and sewerage authority has primary responsibility for the debt.
Furthermore, both groups have always known that until the water authority has a lot more customers, the board of commissioners may have to assume some of the debt service load.
The truth is, revenue generated by selling the water from the reservoir is committed to the debt reduction, and that will differ very little whether the system is managed by the board of commissioners or the water and sewerage authority.
Last year, the water and sewerage authority had $300,000 left over after paying its operational costs. That $300,000 should go for the first two payments this year on the Bear Creek debt. Given decent weather and the expected growth, the water and sewerage authority should have more revenue than expenses this year too, and any excess should go to pay down the reservoir debt.
The rest will have to come from Jackson County, as everyone has always understood.
How much of the $1.8 million 2003 debt service the water and sewerage authority can pay depends more on whether we have a wet summer or a dry one than on who runs the water and sewerage authority.
That doesn't keep either group from proposing that if the other controls the water and sewer systems property taxes will go up. Elton Collins predicted Thursday night that if the county takes over, it will put ad valorem taxes into expanding the system. Privately, the commissioners are licking their chops at the prospect of being able to blame all future tax increase on the water and sewerage authority.
The debt is the scare tactic. The issues are control, power and influence. Debt is just a handy thing for the commissioners to blame for any tax increases. They’re mad that (so far) their plans have been thwarted.
Beshara noted Thursday that an authority is a mechanism to avoid a public vote on bonds. That’s why the commissioners are creating a building authority at the same time they’re contemplating a $22 million (so far) courthouse – so we won’t get to vote on it. Members of that group, interestingly, will have three-year terms, not the two-year terms proposed for the water authority.
But that’s another area of blame.

The Jackson Herald
February 5, 2003

Citizens win big victory over
bumbling BOC
The people have spoken, and their wishes are loud and clear — the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority should remain a quasi-independent agency and not fall under the political thumb of the board of commissioners.
Last Thursday night, some 250 people attended a public meeting to debate the proposed takeover of the water authority by the BOC. It was a diverse crowd with people from all areas of Jackson County. Everyone had a chance to have his or her say.
Overwhelmingly, the crowed favored keeping the BOC’s politics out of water and sewerage decision-making. Only one person stood to support the BOC’s position.
Unfortunately, only one county commissioner, Emil Beshara, showed up to hear what the public had to say. The rest of the board blew off the meeting, reportedly saying they would not lower themselves to participate with a “subordinate” group of people.
That is a disgrace, but not surprising. We have been saying for the last year that this BOC does not care what the public thinks. The board has its own secret agenda and is intent on following it, no matter what public opinion may be.
Thursday night, the BOC verified that when four of its five members stayed home rather than listen to their constituents.
It was an insult to the public.
But make no mistake, the voices raised last Thursday night were heard. They were heard by our legislative delegation which will decide the outcome of this issue. Because of the public outcry, our three state senators have gone on record as saying they will not allow local legislation on the issue to proceed without the water authority’s consent.
That is a clear victory for the water authority and for citizens who care about keeping BOC politics out of county water and sewerage decisions.
As one spokesman said last Thursday night, the BOC in Jackson County has no credibility left with the public. Over the last two years, it has squandered its credibility with its secrecy, its deceit, and its egomania.
That the public has stopped this takeover effort is a humiliating defeat for the BOC. The board had staked all of its political credibility on the takeover effort. Yet it has been beaten by the very people it disdains most — county citizens.
From this day forward, the BOC cannot claim any kind of legitimate mandate for its action in Jackson County. Indeed, the rancor over the water authority takeover calls into question other controversial decisions made by the board, including plans for a controversial new courthouse.
The public has won this fight, but it cannot stop now. This board apparently plans to retaliate against the water authority, even to the point of blowing the $65 million MACI/Toyota industrial deal just to get back at those who stood firm against their grab for more power.
But any move by the BOC to retaliate should be met with a firestorm of public outcry.
And if the BOC does make good on threats to endanger the MACI/Toyota deal, the public should mobilize and hand those five men the ultimate defeat — a recall to toss them out of office.

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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
February 5, 2003

Shades of a new ‘water-gate’
Here’s a new joke for you: How do you know when members of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners are lying? Answer: When their lips are moving.
OK, so it’s a spin-off of an old lawyer joke, but it’s somehow very much on target with our current board of commissioners. The members of this board subscribes to the theory that if you tell a big lie long enough and loud enough, people will believe it.
Alas, the public does not believe the BOC. That board has become the embarrassing, illegitimate child of Jackson County, birthed from an illicit union of egos and politics. The result is a group of men whom virtually no one trusts either as individuals, or as a collective government.
To recap why the public doesn’t trust this group, let’s take a look at nine major lies they have told:
Lie #1: In March of last year, BOC chairman Harold Fletcher said that there was no “rift” between the BOC and water authority and that he “appreciates” the water authority’s work. That was a lie. Even then, Fletcher had plans for a takeover of the water authority, but he just wasn’t ready to launch it yet. Since the day he took office, Fletcher has wanted to take over the water authority and fire his nemesis, Jerry Waddell. It is a sentiment shared by other BOC members who also have a personal dislike of the former BOC chairman. (To get a sense of the level of personal hatred against Waddell, read the guest column by commissioner Beshara on this page.)
Lie #2: Several times last spring, Fletcher and other board members said no decision had been made on buying land for a new courthouse. That was a lie. The board had already decided in secret to buy land on Darnell Road for a courthouse site.
Lie #3: Members of the BOC have said that their efforts on the water authority were not a “takeover.” That is a lie. If taking control of the day-to-day operations, voiding contracts and threatening board members with short terms isn’t a takeover, then what is it?
Lie #4: Fletcher told county employees that the reason they didn’t get a raise this year was because of the water authority and the Bear Creek note payment. That is a lie. The decision to not give employee raises was made in October, long before the blow-up over the water authority and Bear Creek note payment.
Lie #5: Members of the BOC say they will have to increase taxes because of the water authority and Bear Creek note payment. That is a lie. If taxes are increased, it’s because the BOC has created a bloated bureaucracy around county manager Al Crace who has hired assistants for assistants. County spending is out of control and the BOC is looking for funds for their pet courthouse project. If taxes go up, it will be to pay for their own mishandling of county finances and to fund the board’s plans for a Darnell Road monument to themselves, not Bear Creek.
Lie #6: The water authority can’t pay its debts. That is a lie. The Bear Creek note payment is a county BOC obligation. That reservoir belongs to all citizens, not just those who are on the county water system. The water authority has been making the BOC’s note payments for the last 18 months from leftover SPLOST money, but stopped this month after the BOC began its takeover attempt.
Lie #7: Commissioner Emil Beshara said that a “majority” of the crowd at last Thursday’s public meeting with the water authority were from Jefferson. That is a lie. When Fletcher-Follower David Oppenhimer stood and asked those from Jefferson to raise their hands, only 25-30 percent of the crowd responded. The vast majority of those at the meeting were from unincorporated Jackson County. Jefferson-bashing may be popular in some circles, but it doesn’t hold currency with the water authority situation, or Thursday’s meeting. Oppenhimer was so stunned by the results of his question, he looked like a deer caught in headlights and quickly sat down.
Lie #8: Members of the BOC, especially Beshara and commissioner Stacey Britt, claim the water authority mishandled an engineering bid. That is a lie. The bid was handled according to state law and both Fletcher and Crace were on the “bid team” that made the decision. One of the bidders who lost out is a buddy of Britt’s from Gwinnett County. Enough said.
Lie #9: If the BOC takes over the water authority, the Bear Creek debt will go away. That is a lie. If the BOC had control today, it could not generate any more money than the authority currently takes in. The authority is not withholding money from the county, as the BOC has implied.
It’s a shame when the public cannot trust its leaders, when they hear an echo of “water-gate” everytime a BOC member opens his mouth.
But compared to these bozos, Richard Nixon should be canonized as a Saint.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Commerce News
February 5, 2003

The Commissioners Have Found Their Scapegoat
They weren't men enough (except for Emil Beshara) to come to a public hearing to hear what the voters wanted, but the Jackson County Board of Commissioners aren't particularly concerned with what the public wants anyway.
The commissioners believe they can throw up the issue of the Bear Creek Reservoir debt as an excuse for virtually everything. Even before the public hearing, Harold Fletcher had told county employees that there would be no pay raises because of the county's obligation to pay off the Bear Creek debt. The BOC wasted no time trotting out promises of property tax increases now that their plot has collapsed..
Like spoiled children who take their ball and go home when the game doesn't go their way, the commissioners' first reaction to the public's opposition is to declare the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority the official county scapegoat.
Never mind that the commissioners are not now living within the county's income. All future tax increases, they believe, have been licensed by the Bear Creek debt. If the MACI project is endangered because of county ineptitude? It's the water authority's fault. When the commissioners begin raising taxes to cover animal control or roads for the courthouse, guess who they'll blame? The water and sewerage authority. If the next space shuttle breaks up over Jackson County, the water and sewerage authority will be blamed.
Of course, those statements will ring hollow on taxpayers who have watched the board of commissioners in action. Also, no matter how the county's debt from the regional reservoir is paid, it will be a better investment than whatever the county spends for a new courthouse. Unlike the courthouse, the reservoir will pay for itself.
Nobody envisioned that during the early years the water and sewerage authority would be able to sell enough water to make the Bear Creek payments. It was and still is expected, however, that as water sales increase, it will take on more of the debt service. Rates of growth and the amount of rainfall will affect its ability to make those payments, but the expectation is that every cent over the cost of operating the system will go to help reduce that debt.
In reality, retirement of the Bear Creek debt is a short-term issue pushed to the forefront to obscure the real motives, which include political revenge on Jerry Waddell, the ability to determine how the water and sewer system is developed and the increase of the commissioners' influence. The commissioners can blame the water and sewerage authority for everything under the sun, but the taxpayers have already demonstrated that they can see through the charade.

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