More Jackson County Opinions...

FEBRUARY 5, 2003


Column
By:Emil Beshara
The Jackson Herald
February 5, 2003

Commissioner calls for change of water authority
At the BOC meeting held on 2/6/03 I made a motion to draft legislation modifying the Jackson County Water & Sewer Authority. Much public debate has been sparked over this proposal and much media coverage has been given the subject, although the debate has shifted away from the actual proposal.
I proposed to convey responsibility for daily operations of the water and sewer system from the W&SA to the County government, to modify the makeup and terms of the W&SA membership to a form like the BOC, and to rescind the six 50-year agreements put in place by the previous BOC during the last three months of their term. I did not propose that the members of the BOC dictate where water lines funded through SPLOST were placed nor to eliminate any contracts with Jefferson.
At the called meeting of the W&SA on 1/30/03, the overwhelming sentiment I heard expressed by the majority-Jefferson crowd was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’m personally excited about a “cross-section of Jackson County” expressing this view.
If the W&SA “ain’t broke”, members of the BOC can look forward to some pretty cool fringe benefits from holding public office. We can emulate the former BOC Chairman Jerry Waddell, and expect a salary above what we can command in the private sector after we leave office. Current BOC Chairman Harold Fletcher surely also deserves a lifetime salary at the expense of the taxpayers, maybe as a financial planner for $250,000/year. While we’re at it, I have been elected to two terms on the BOC just as Waddell was, and surely I deserve a $200,000/year consulting engineer position. If I can make it through my two terms without totaling a County vehicle while drunk, I might command even more.
Mr. Waddell, as the Chairman of the BOC, sat on the board that appointed every member of the W&SA. He then suggested they create a position of Superintendent. He then applied for the position and was hired while still in office. He signed six 50-year agreements that transferred control from the BOC to the W&SA in his last months as Chairman. While still Chairman he was guaranteed a salary for managing one element of the budget that exceeded the salary he was paid for running the whole County. No other employer, public or private, would pay such a salary to someone with his credentials.

******
It is undeniable that the 1985 W&SA legislation was drafted for a vastly different form of county government. The 1985 W&SA enabling legislation was drafted when the BOC was a full-time Chairman and two part-time Commissioners. The voters overwhelmingly voted to change the form of government in 2000 to a professional form of government that delegated daily operational control to a hired professional. The change was a drastic one, and one whose time had come.
The W&SA is currently delegated responsibility for day-to-day operation of the water and sewer system, such as reading meters, repairing lines, flushing hydrants, sending out bills, etc. There is no reason why such employees need or deserve to have their functions de-politicized. To date nobody has even attempted to outline why daily operations need to be shielded from public accountability.
The Jackson County Public Works Department is headed by a Professional Engineer who has operated several public water and sewer systems. The W&SA currently has no PE on staff, and relies on hired consultants to provide basic engineering expertise. Had the W&SA actually considered other applicants for the superintendent’s position in late 2000, they would have considered the financial impact of hiring a Superintendent/ General Manager with absolutely no qualifications for the position. The result is that they have to pay hired engineers to cover for their Superintendent.
While the W&SA is to be generally commended for expanding water infrastructure in Jackson County, there are certainly some specific examples of why their performance should be called to task.
Last year the W&SA gave a contract for engineering services to a company for $1,200,000. In doing so, they only considered two bidders out of 13 bids submitted, eliminating 11 of 13 firms as “unqualified”. The only other “qualified” bidder is notorious for being expensive. A Gwinnett firm eliminated has completed similar projects here and throughout Georgia. The W&SA never opened their bid, or any of the 10 other bids, because they had already decided to whom they would give the work. The Gwinnett firm bid $492,000, over $700,000 less than the bid they voted to accept. A Cobb firm submitted a bid totaling $625,000.
W&SA Chairman Elton Collins has a plan that has not been reported. He proposed that one half million dollars be set aside in a special escrow account, controlled solely by him, and to be paid to Waddell for performance of his duties. In the event he is terminated “for political reasons” he would still dispense the money to Waddell. Collins proposed that he be the sole determiner of what constitutes a “political reason”. Nobody is owed a salary for life. Nobody deserves to make far more working in the public sector than they could command in the private sector. And it is the height of arrogance to assume that you should have the sole authority to dispense public funds to your friend because you think he deserves it. It is clear that the W&SA has been manipulated by and to the personal financial benefit of former BOC Chairman Waddell.
The Bear Creek reservoir and treatment system provides water to the W&SA, and the W&SA receives all the revenue from water sales. The W&SA recently refused to make the Bear Creek payments of $149,500/month. If the County is saddled with sole responsibility for these payments, property owners in the unincorporated County can expect a 38.08% increase and incorporated taxpayers a 32.92% increase in their taxes next year. Whether you use the water or not, we will all soon be paying for it. This debt should be paid through water sales, not property taxes.

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Column
By: Bill Shipp
The Jackson Herald
February 5, 2003

Surprise! Surprise! Two party stuff works
Why didn’t we try this sooner?
Competitive, two-party state government may be the best thing to happen to Georgia since the end of Reconstruction or even the premiere of “Gone With the Wind.”
Less than a month after the Grand Old Party took over the governor’s office and grabbed control of the state Senate from Democrats, look at what has happened:
- When Gov. Sonny Perdue misspoke and proposed a number of tax increases, Republicans and Democrats nearly trampled each other to get to a microphone to tell the governor to wash out his mouth. Dems and Reps took turns denouncing taxes and promising to crush attempts to hike levies on citizens’ homes or liquor or cigarettes. In the olden days of one-party control, Democratic legislative leaders might have moaned and groaned quietly. But open defiance of a Democratic governor? Perish the thought.
- The budget crunch revealed an even brighter side of the two-party paradigm. As predictions of the shortfall grew increasingly dire, donkeys and elephants engaged in a championship series of one-upmanship to whack spending. By the end of the week, legislative leaders of both parties had become so enthusiastic that they advocated cutting their own pay. No, that’s not a misprint. Republicans and Democrats offered to suffer personal salary cutbacks to help balance the budget.
(The savings from such a reduction would be barely visible. But the idea is a telling sign that partisan politics is off to a fine start under the Gold Dome.)
- Then there’s the ethics stampede. Show me an elected official, Republican or Democrat, in the Statehouse today who doesn’t have a plan to make government more ethical. You can’t find one. Everybody has a public-officials’ purification proposal.
The Republican governor has introduced a series of measures aimed at curbing unethical lobbying. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, proposes a Puritan-strict ethics plan to ferret out conflicts of interest. And Democratic House Speaker Terry Coleman said months ago, even before the Republican revolution, that he had his own plan for policing his colleagues’ conduct. By week’s end, rank-and-file lawmakers of both parties had filed so many ethics bills that the clerks lost count.
Presumably, Republicans also plan to flood the legislative hoppers with more sunshine measures. Before coming to power, the elephants complained for years of the secret doings of the Democrats. Now they have a chance to rectify that problem. Unhappily, advocating open meetings and records may be like supporting term limits. Both items tend to lose their appeal when the “outs” become the “ins.”
A couple of discouraging notes for First Amendment advocates: Gov. Perdue has administered a personal tongue-lashing to Republican state senators for talking to the media.
And the new inspector general, an ex-military man named James E. Sehorn, suggested in his maiden press conference that his office be exempt from Georgia’s open-records statute. His attitude may be a symptom of a deeper issue.
The record number of retired military officers and corporate moguls who have drifted into state government with the new Republican conquerors might improve efficiency in the Capitol, but their presence does not bode well for more sunshine in government.
The best test for this fledgling bipartisan government may come in the riddle of the flag.
Gov. Perdue has promised a nonbinding referendum on the subject. Perhaps he will flesh out his promise with details. Whether or not he does, the Legislature - one house controlled by white and black Democrats, the other run by white Republicans - will be saddled with the burden of approving the referendum and deciding when and how it will be conducted. Then the Legislature must decide if it will follow the dictates of the “nonbinding” vote.
If the House of Democrat Terry Coleman and the Senate of Republican Eric Johnson can survive the ordeal of the flag without a major blowup, both sides should be awarded bipartisan medals for Solomonic decision-making.
Of course, complaints about the new two-party government abound. Republicans say the Democrats are obstructionists. Democrats say the Republicans are arrogant and vindictive. Both sides warn darkly that we may be headed into an era of legislative gridlock when neither side is able to gain passage of meaningful laws.
For many of us taxpayers, who are already heralding the new era of two-party arm-wrestling, a stalemate over generating new laws may be the happiest news of all.

You can reach Bill Shipp at e-mail: bshipp@bellsouth.net, Web address: http://www.billshipp.com


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