Jackson County Opinions...

June 4, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
June 4, 2003

Keep The Kids Inside For A
Safe Summer
Summer isn't what it used to be. Considering the threats of terrorism, SARS, the West Nile virus and rabies, Gov. Sonny Perdue should issue an executive order for a 24/7 curfew on children until school starts.
The terrorism threat level changes so frequently that it's hard to keep up with, but the Commerce city reservoir has been singled out locally as a significant enough target that it’s shut down every other week.
You don't want to think of your kids being nearby when the terrorists attack. Keep them inside and, just to be safe, don't let them drink or wash with the water.
In the event your children escape the terrorists, there are a trio of diseases that are bound to hit unless you take precautions.
The first is SARS (Some Awfully Risky Stuff), which started in Peking and came to America in a tractor-trailer load of illegal Mexican immigrants, said a former high official of BJC Medical Center.
The symptoms are you get sick, feel like dirt and spread the illness to everyone you meet. Sometimes (only once per case) you die. In China, you can go to prison for spreading SARS. Here, you can get on a talk show, in which case you should be sure to hug and kiss the host and fellow guests to show your gratitude.
For those who somehow manage to avoid terrorists and SARS, the West Nile virus is back.
It is spread by mosquitoes, who transmit it from birds to humans as a consequence of having varied diets. The mortality rate is higher for blue jays and crows than for humans, but since we didn't have SARS with which to compare it last year, it created a good amount of hysteria.
Unlike SARS, West Nile is easy to control. You can do it two ways, by killing all of the mosquitoes or killing all the birds. Hint: Commerce is not a mosquito sanctuary.
We haven't had a SARS case locally yet, but if you want to liven up a Cub Scout pack meeting, casually mention that your coughing Cub hasn't felt quite right since he got back from Hong Kong.
Rabies is entirely preventable in people, but for the sake of stimulating the local economy and giving newspapers something to report, it is allowed to run fairly rampant in pets in Jackson and adjoining counties. Also because public health officials are too afraid of the West Nile virus to go out and vaccinate the wild animals.
Unless your children have Kevlar leggings and gloves, you should probably not allow them outside in any area where dogs or cats have been seen. Adults should use discretion when handling foxes, raccoons and certain elected officials.
For your children's safety under the threat of these killers, keep them inside this summer. They will object strenuously, but if you give them unlimited TV time, buy new video games, provide unsupervised access to the Internet, as recommended by former President Clinton's surgeon general, and keep a supply of healthy snacks like Little Debbie cakes, Big Macs and 20-ounce caffeine-laced softdrinks, you'll hear very few complaints.
Be glad there are no national political conventions this year. That would really be serious.
Have a pleasant summer.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
June 4, 2003

Increasing conflicts a BOC problem
Zoning issues and rezonings are the single largest area of controversy in local government today.
While there will always be other hot-button issues to flare up, it is zoning that week after week, month after month, continues to generate hours of heated discussions before local governments.
Although we sometimes disagree with a particular zoning decision, for the most part, we believe local government officials do their best to sort out the complex issues before voting on a final decision. That they have to do that in an atmosphere that is often filled with emotion is no small feat.
Yet, we are concerned about the number of times three of our county commissioners have had to recuse themselves from voting on zoning issues because of potential conflicts-of-interest. Two commissioners, Stacey Britt and Harold Fletcher, are involved in local real estate development and the third, Emil Beshara, does business with some local developers through his private firm.
This week, for example, three separate rezonings saw one or more commissioner decline to participate or vote because of potential conflicts-of-interest.
On a couple of occasions, two commissioners recused themselves, leaving only three other commissioners in a position to vote. Had those three been divided, the rezoning would have been impossible since it takes three votes to support any action by the BOC.
But the problem is deeper than just reaching a quorum. What concerns us are not the situations where there are direct conflicts, but rather those situations where a commissioner may vote because of other property he may have a similar interest in.
Those situations probably don’t apply to Beshara, who doesn’t trade in real estate, but they do apply to Britt and Fletcher, both of whom do have extensive real estate investments in the community.
How? Any decision made by the BOC today on a rezoning sets the tone for future, similar rezoning actions. It becomes impossible, then, for the public to really know the reasons for a vote by either of those men. Did they vote based on the merits of a particular rezoning request, or did they vote because they have interests in other tracts which are similar to the case before them?
We cannot say for certain that any of our public officials, Mr. Britt and Mr. Fletcher included, have acted on a rezoning based on their own personal real estate interest, but certainly the potential does exist.
But even more importantly, the public perception of such votes will always be tainted by a question mark: Did he vote the way he did because of the merits of a rezoning request, or did he make a decision based on other, unseen interests?
The public can’t answer that question and that, in the end, is the crux of the problem. When public responsibility and private interests overlap, public officials create an atmosphere of distrust.
And trust, more than anything else, is the backbone of government. Once it is lost, everything else will soon follow.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
June 4, 2003

Will real estate ‘bubble’ burst?
The crash of the Dotcom Era in 1999 and resulting downward spiral of the Stock Market hit investors like a brick. Wealth, or at least the illusion of wealth, melted away virtually overnight.
The roaring ‘90s was over.
But it wasn’t just young 20-somethings making six figures who got burned. Investors of all ages felt the pain when the stock market went down. Some who retired young believing that their stock investments would be enough to carry them are now back at work.
It was all an illusion, of course. The build up of the dotcoms and the resulting hyper-inflated stock market were never real. Speculation drove the upturn just as reality brought it crashing to the ground. Dotcoms that never turned a profit were bound to fail when investor funds ran out.
Now some believe the same kind of bubble is about to burst in the world-wide real estate market. For most of us, that would even be worse than a stock market fall.
Owning a home has traditionally been the safest investment a family could make. Housing prices have risen faster than just about any other investment. And with low interest rates, buying a new home, or building a bigger home, has seemed like a safe bet.
But over the last six months, a variety of international journals and magazines have said that the upswing in real estate values has become inflated just like the dotcom values. Some predict that worldwide, real estate values are bound for a fall.
That seems like a far-fetched idea here in Jackson County where growth has fueled rising home values. That rising demand combined with increased government regulations and more aggressive zoning codes has pushed the price of building a new home upward. And as the price of new homes increases, the value of older existing homes rises too.
But what happens if demand falls? A jump in interest rates could slow the demand for new homes as it did in the early 1980s. Or if there is another major terrorist incident on American soil, the economy could slide back into a recession.
In addition, there is a lot of speculation taking place in Jackson County on raw, unimproved real estate. Those with lots of cash on hand are buying up land around the county betting on a long-term profit by having it rezoned and turned into residential property.
There is a danger, however, that at some point the county will be over-invested. As more and more developers look to make a buck, the marketplace “pie” gets sliced into thinner pieces. An over supply of new homes forces everyone’s investment down as the asking price falls to attract buyers.
Still, the long-term prospect for investing in Jackson County looks solid. While there may be a downturn coming at some point in the next 18-24 months, that would only be a temporary event. As long as the population in the Atlanta metro area continues to grow, Jackson County will continue to see its share of “spillover” growth.
That may, or may not be what the citizens here want. But even if you don’t like all the new subdivisions, those same projects are pulling up the value of your home.
And if local governments don’t tax us to death, that’s an investment worth having.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
June 4, 2003

Drought Plan Needs
A Few Adjustments
While it is good to see the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority modifying its drought contingency plan for the day when it will be needed, the draft copy has a couple of major flaws to be addressed before the final version is corrected.
First, the plan calls for but a minimum of 20 percent reduction in water usage in the most severe phase of the drought, compared to the first stage. While the draft notes that this is a "minimum," meaning the authority can impose a greater percentage of reduction, the target for water usage reduction at that level of severity must be higher.
This is especially true considering that the draft percentages, if invoked for last year's period of drought, would have added but 17 days to the serviceability of the reservoir. Given that the 17 days is based on 2002 usage, that level of reduction in consumption would provide considerably fewer extra days of water if applied once Jackson, Barrow and Oconee counties' water systems mature.
Secondly, leaving it up to individual counties to determine how they meet their reduction goals defeats one of the reasons for reviewing the drought contingency plan. Last year, some nursery growers in Jackson County were incensed to find that their use of water was restricted, while similar businesses in Athens-Clarke County were not. The idea was to get all counties on the same page when implementing water use restrictions. If that does not happen, when another severe drought occurs the authority's members will be in the awkward position of having to explain why water uses permitted in one of the four counties are prohibited in the others – perhaps to the serious competitive disadvantages of local businesses.
Fortunately, it appears that 2003 is destined to be a wet year, which gives the authority plenty of time to iron out these and any other kinks in the plan.


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