Jackson County Opinions...

FEBRUARY 12, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
February 12, 2003

Why Commerce Backs BOC
In Everything
In all of Jackson County, only one government has indicated support for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners taking over the county's water and sewerage authority. That is the city of Commerce, whose government appears to back the commissioners 100 percent.
There are reasons for that solidarity, but the biggest one is that the commissioners have bought the city government's backing by providing assistance that the city has never before received from a group of commissioners.
In addition to providing funding for the city library (and all other libraries in the county), the commissioners helped move thousands of cubic yards of dirt from the city's waste treatment plant, taking most of it to the new middle school site. That assistance saved the city and the city board of education thousands of dollars. Likewise, the commissioners have agreed to use a county crew to tear down the old Oxford building for the construction of a parking lot. Other areas of cooperation also exist, largely for the first time.
In short, the city has two friends, Sammy Thomason and Harold Fletcher, in office. There are also social connections. Thomason, mayor Charles L. Hardy Jr., city manager Clarence Bryant and councilman Bob Sosebee travel in the same social circles; Sosebee and Fletcher do business together and the city uses Fletcher for appraisals. They like and trust one another.
Contrast that with the city-county relationship when Jerry Waddell, now manager of the water and sewerage authority, was chairman, and you can see why the city sides with the board of commissioners. For much of his term in office, Waddell was at war with Commerce.
There is a darker underlying factor that the city government will never admit. In siding with the commissioners, the city is taking a shot at Jefferson, of which it is very jealous.
That's why Hardy, who championed keeping Commerce's post office downtown, supported moving the courthouse out of Jefferson. An even greater hypocrisy was Sosebee's support for the Darnell Road courthouse site. As a statewide advocate of downtown development, Sosebee turned his back on that philosophy to put the screws to Jefferson.
What eats away at Commerce officials is that Jefferson is getting the lion's share of the county's industrial growth; Commerce is getting virtually none. Jefferson's tax digest long ago surpassed that of Commerce and its population will soon do the same (Braselton may also surpass Commerce). Commerce’s only claim to superiority (aside from high school football) is dwindling and anything that detracts from Jefferson will be silently cheered by most of the city's elected officials.
Instead of moving aggressively to market itself and to get in the development game, city officials do little more than complain that the IDA and the chamber aren’t doing enough to promote Commerce sites.
In summary, the city has a legitimate reason for siding with the board of commissioners and it has reasons that are not so good. Politics is complicated and seldom attractive, but there are reasons why things happen the way they do.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
February 12, 2003

Building authority needs ceiling, more discussion
Over the past few weeks, the effort by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to take over the county water authority has gotten the lion’s share of attention. But that is not the only issue happening in county government that merits close attention by citizens.
One of the most important issues is the continued march by the BOC toward plans to build a multi-million dollar project on Darnell Road to serve as a “campus” of county buildings, including a new courthouse. Next week, the board may be deciding on a contractor for the project.
But it is strange to us that one aspect of that project has never been discussed by the board — how it will be paid for.
Not once has the BOC had a meeting to discuss financing of the proposed courthouse project, despite the fact that the cost is likely to reach $40 million or more.
So what has the board done?
It has spent over $2 million to buy 160 acres for its proposed “campus.” And remember, that land was purchased without any board consideration of other potential locations.
It has spent thousands of dollars to hire architects.
It has hired a “consultant” for the project.
It has paid for various testing at the site.
But the board has not held a single discussion about how it plans to pay for it.
What the board has done, in addition to the above, is to call for legislation to create a county building authority. Left unsaid in that call for legislation is the intent to use this authority to bypass the public to finance the Darnell Road project.
How does that work? Years ago, the only way to finance a huge capital debt was through a bond referendum voted on by taxpayers. A large debt project would be proposed and taxpayers would vote “Yes” or “No” on the idea.
Then along came SPLOST money where taxpayers could vote to use sales tax funds for capital projects, including buildings.
A few years ago, the state began to allow the creation of building authorities. These groups can borrow money to finance a building, then lease the building back to the governing body. The governing body then raises taxes, or uses other funds, to make the lease payments.
As a financial instrument, building authorities do have a purpose. But the real impact has been that they allow governments to create a huge debt on taxpayers without any taxpayer say-so.
We don’t have a problem with the creation of a county building authority, but we do believe two provisions should be put in place. First, the authority should have a debt ceiling of no more than $20 million. To not put a ceiling in place would be to give the county BOC a blank check that would lead to massive tax hikes in the coming years.
This board has long preached the idea of “not binding future boards,” but to allow any board to bind taxpayers to years of debt without public approval is itself an act of binding future boards.
In addition to a debt ceiling, the county should be required to hold public hearings to allow input before any debt is incurred. It is wrong that five men can create a huge public debt without any discussions being held.
It is clear to us that this BOC does not intend to hold any public discussion or debate over putting the county $40 million in debt. Property taxes will skyrocket and the public will have no recourse.
We hope that before any legislation moves on creating a county building authority that both a debt ceiling and public hearing provision will be included.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
February 12, 2003

The ‘king’
has no clothes
Oh my, Mr. Chairman is mad. His dander is up and he’s hunting someone to blame — me.
In case you missed the story elsewhere, county commission chairman Harold Fletcher is more than a little miffed at yours truly. Among other things, he said I use “rope-a-dope tricks” in my writing, whatever that means.
Sorry, Mr. Chairman, on this page you’ve entered the “no spin zone” where we make an effort to separate political rhetoric and spinning distortions from the truth. We don’t carry any water for your board’s political intrigue.
The real problem is that county commissioners are so used to spinning their messages to suit a political agenda that when the truth is told, it hurts.
It’s kinda like the fairy tale where the king has no clothes. His fawning ministers tell him how beautiful his garments are, so he believes he’s robed. He’s gawked at by the public which knows he’s standing stark naked at the throne, but because he’s the king, they’re afraid to tell him the truth. Finally, one person steps forward to point out the king’s garments are not real and he suddenly realizes he has no clothes.
Just think of this page, Mr. Chairman, as a mirror which reflects a king without clothes.
Of course, what Mr. Chairman is really having a tantrum about is that the citizens of Jackson County handed him a huge political defeat by stopping his move to take over the county water authority. The citizens spoke, legislative leaders listened, and the king didn’t get to expand his kingdom.
Alas, the rhetoric and whining continues unabated. One of the political justifications for the attempted take over was the propaganda that the water authority couldn’t pay all of the Bear Creek construction debt. That wasn’t the real reason for the take-over move, of course, but the BOC thought it sounded good so they trotted it out for political cover.
Now Mr. Chairman is telling folks that since he couldn’t take over the water authority, he’ll have to raise taxes to pay the Bear Creek debt.
But it’s just a naked scare tactic.
The truth is, by the end of 2003, the water authority will probably generate enough income to pay most of the Bear Creek construction debt. In fact, the authority has already paid the first 18 months of the debt for the BOC. The BOC has only had to make one payment and that was for January of this year. The water authority refused to make that payment since the BOC was trying to take it over.
Of course, the bottom line for the authority will depend on the weather. If there’s a dry summer and water purchases increase, the authority will make more money and can pay more of the debt. Also, if more people tap into the system, the resulting sales will increase the profits and thus give the authority more funds to reimburse the county.
None of that is guaranteed, no matter who runs the water authority. The last time I checked, even Mr. Chairman couldn’t stop the rain, or force people to tap into county water lines.
Still, it is unlikely that the BOC will, in the end, have to carry a large share of the Bear Creek debt. As the county water system grows, the water authority will have the means to pay that debt service in full.
But even if the BOC does have to make some part of the debt payments, it is not an unfair burden. The Bear Creek Reservoir and treatment plant exists for all Jackson County citizens. When the City of Jefferson’s lake gets low in a drought, as it did last summer, Bear Creek water is available to help fill the tanks. Why shouldn’t those of us in the City of Jefferson help pay a share of the debt that built the lake which holds that water?
The security Bear Creek gives Jackson County extends to all citizens, not just to those who tap into county water lines. Even if we don’t drink Bear Creek water every day, the fact that Bear Creek is available in an emergency is worth some investment on our part as taxpayers.
But what’s really galling about Mr. Chairman’s rhetoric is that while he whines about the Bear Creek debt ad nauseam, he refuses to utter a single word about the looming courthouse debt.
Not once has Mr. Chairman, or anyone on his board, discussed how that multi-million dollar project on Darnell Road will be paid for.
Not once has Mr. Chairman discussed how much it will cost.
Why? Because Mr. Chairman plans a large tax hike later this year to fund his Darnell Road courthouse plans, but he wants to blame that tax hike on the Bear Creek debt. In other words, he’s playing a political shell game — raise taxes, then blame it on someone else.
Alas, this king has no clothes. His plans are transparent, his rhetoric empty, his credibility gone. He is standing at the throne stark naked even while his four fellow commissioners continue to tell him how wonderful his robe looks.
But don’t worry, Mr. Chairman, I’m here to help you. Just fold this page over a couple of times — it’ll make a great loin cloth.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
February 12, 2003

Authority Should Spell
Out Debt Payment Plans
The Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority can put a lot of the citizens' uncertainty regarding the Bear Creek Reservoir debt to rest with a simple statement at its Thursday night meeting. Inasmuch as the 2003 budget is to be discussed, the authority can spell out exactly how much of the $1.8 million reservoir debt it expects to be able to fund during 2003.
Granted, a budget is just an operating guideline and is subject to change. For example, if Jackson County has a relatively dry spring and summer, the authority will sell more water and be better able to service the debt; if it rains every week, the authority will sell less water and its ability to pay the Jackson County reservoir debt may be jeopardized. Likewise, emergencies or even opportunities that arise could alter the amount of revenue that is available and how it is spent.
The debt retirement is in the water and sewerage authority’s budget, but that has not stopped the board of commissioners from continuing its assault on the authority. Discredited and humiliated when their takeover stalled, the commissioners have little left to do but to use their meetings to hurl baseless charges against the water and sewerage authority and to try to use fears of property tax increases to gain sympathy from the gullible.
With the board of commissioners tossing one set of purported tax rates out after another in an attempt to scare voters and to detract them from its agenda, the authority should make a point Thursday of stating just how much of the $1.8 million it intends to pay and what projections that revenue is based upon. The board of commissioners, thwarted in its attempt to take over the authority's operations, is trying to turn the discussion from its power play to fear over property taxes. In reality, operation of the county water system by either the authority or the county government will have much less effect on revenue available for servicing the Bear Creek debt than will the amount of rainfall and the number of customers buying county water. It is incumbent upon the water and sewerage authority to pay as much of the Bear Creek debt as possible and the authority would be well advised to explain how it plans to do it, no matter how petty and unprofessional the board of commissioners may be.
Should the authority be fortunate and sell enough water to pay the entire 2003 debt service, that would be great. Then the commissioners can always use the $1.8 million they plan to raise where they'll need it more: building their divided highway to access their $22 million boondoggle courthouse.


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