Jackson County Opinions...

June 18, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
June 18, 2003

Low Expectations
Key To Enjoying
The Vacation
By the time you read this, I should be back home after a week's vacation – a flight to Denver and a drive to and from Yellowstone National Park.
The plan, at the time this is being written, is to catch a free flight on AirTran (for whom our daughter Laura works), rent a car and enjoy a few days in Wyoming (a crucial part of which is my catching trout). Barbara has never been to Wyoming, and I was there but once some 30 years ago. Needless to say, we've been looking forward to this.
High expectations are fraught with danger. While we've flown AirTran a number of times without difficulty, there is always the chance that on stand-by status, you won't make the flight. Or the next one. Spending the week in Hartsfield International Airport is not optimum use of vacation time.
Then there's the destination itself. The Wyoming I hope to visit remains in a time warp. It's still 1971, the traffic is moderate and the fishing pressure low. Traffic in Yellowstone tends to back up at sightings of bears or buffalo, but it is possible to park the car, walk across a meadow and fish the Firehole River with no one else in sight.
It's the reality of present-day Wyoming and Yellowstone that worries me.
Has traffic in the park increased ten-fold and angling pressure as well? Fly fishing in 1971 was almost a novelty. Then "A River Runs Through It" became a hit movie and every adult male felt that being able to fly fish was an essential part of manhood. Fishing for trout became a reason for travel, a social requirement, proof of masculinity and the primary purpose of many a vacation. Since Yellowstone contains (or did contain) some of the best trout fishing in the world, my glass-half-empty view suggests I'll have a lot of company when I try to fish.
The road between Cheyenne and Yellowstone was desolate, spectacular in places and right in the middle of nowhere is the Sweetwater River, a nondescript stream which, in 1971, had fantastic fishing right off the main road – if you could stand the mosquitoes, which rose in clouds as you walked to the river. I want to find it just as I left it, which is as likely as finding gold in the Grove River.
Then there was the Brooks Lake Creek campground in Shoshone National Forest, where I camped 11 days just this side of Togwatee Pass on the Continental Divide. If the campground has been expanded, a convenience store added and if the moose don’t still forage along the stream, I’ll consider it change for the ill.
The fear is twofold: that instead of enjoying the West for its geographic features and raw beauty, I'll find myself repeating, "It was a lot better in 1971" about everything I see; or in the unlikely event that the change is minimal, I'll be intensely frustrated because this go-round I can't stop and fish at every likely spot.
To defend against disappointment, I'm taking the "expect the worst and you'll never be disappointed" viewpoint. I'm planning on disaster; and anything short of that will be considered success.
The disaster should at least make a column for next week. I expect at least that much from a vacation.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
June 18, 2003

Keen a leader in more than just athletics
Anyone who reads this space on a regular basis knows we value good leadership.
While most of our leadership focus is in the public political arena, that isn’t the only venue where leadership is found. Leadership can be found in all areas of life, including education.
One local education leader was honored this past weekend — Jefferson High School’s coach Jack Keen. Keen was inducted into the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame for his 45-year coaching career.
While Keen’s honor was for coaching, we believe it is really much broader than that. In addition to his coaching success, Keen has been a leading classroom teacher at the school for over three decades.
Although Keen retired three years ago from his coaching duties and now teaches part-time, his influence continues to be felt. Indeed, he left the programs he built in the hands of those he helped shape.
So we join with so many others in this community and across the state in saying, “Congratulations” to coach Keen for his hall of fame induction last weekend. It is an honor he richly deserves.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
June 18, 2003

Why courthouse financing is illegal
In his defense of the proposed financing for a new county courthouse, commission chairman Harold Fletcher sounds a lot like my children — “Everyone else is doing it this way, so why can’t I?”
Alas, the stock answer to children is usually, “Because I said so!” But to Fletcher, the answer is, “Because the Georgia Constitution says so!”
For those who joined this debate late, at issue is the proposal to finance a new courthouse with “backdoor” bonds via a lease-purchase program. Those arrangements have become more and more of a common way local governments pay for capital projects because in doing so, local governments can avoid having to ask taxpayers for permission to issue debt.
So Fletcher is correct that a lot of governments are doing lease-purchase deals, but that doesn’t make this one legal or right.
During Monday’s meeting, Fletcher opinioned that if such deals were illegal, they why hasn’t some sharp lawyer caught on and done something about it?
Well, Mr. Fletcher, that may just happen. As Fletcher knows, a group of local citizens have hired a lawyer to investigate the proposed financing plan. That lawyer has made an extensive open records request of Fletcher and the county for documents related to the proposal.
So maybe, Mr. Fletcher, the courts will finally get the chance to decide this issue.
The Georgia Constitution says that local governments cannot have long-term debt without a vote of the public. Lease-purchase deals get around that by having some other organization hold title to the property and for the county to then lease it back over a period of years with a buyout provision at the end.
But one of the key provisions of lease-purchase deals is that the government must have the right to walk away from the lease at the end of every calendar year. Otherwise, it isn’t a lease, but just debt with a fancy name.
I think that is one of the reasons why the proposed courthouse lease-purchase won’t fly. It is impossible for the county to walk away from the lease-purchase of a $25 million construction project, such as a courthouse. It is a far different kind of deal than using lease-purchase plans to buy computers, sheriffs’ cars or heavy equipment for road work.
So if this deal does indeed get litigated, I believe the key issue will be this: Does the proposed financing of the courthouse with a lease-purchase plan create “indebtedness” on Jackson County taxpayers? If the courts rule the deal is really a debt, then the county cannot use a lease-purchase to finance a courthouse.
So the county will be forced to argue that the deal is not really a debt, but rather just a lease. And I think that’s where they will get tripped up. Here’s why:
1. The county sought and bought the land for a new courthouse.
2. The county hired the consultants, architects and contractors to build the facility.
3. The county has said it plans to ask voters for a SPLOST vote next year from which to make the lease payments.
The first two points clearly show that this project, in its entirety, is a capital project of and by the county government. It is not an arms-length transaction as are most conventional lease arrangements.
But it is the third point that may prove to be most troublesome to the county. SPLOST funds can be used only for capital projects and to retire debt from capital projects. So the fact that the county plans to use SPLOST funds is an admission that this project is indeed a capital debt project done by the county government. SPLOST funds cannot be used to simply make lease payments.
Then there’s another aspect to this issue: The county government has other alternatives. It can call a bond referendum this year, or it can wait a year to start construction and put the courthouse on a SPLOST vote. Either of those would be legal.
But leaders know that the public would never approve a bond referendum or a SPLOST vote after the way this matter was handled by the BOC.
So chairman Fletcher’s diatribe about me at Monday’s meeting is just his response to the prospect of potential litigation. He’s angry that I have written about this issue and raised questions that he doesn’t want the public to know about. (He’s also angry about another open records request this newspaper has made on an unrelated subject. Stay tuned for that revealing story in the coming weeks.)
The truth hurts. Consequently, Fletcher tries to change the subject by name-calling and making personal attacks against those who disagree with his methods and objectives.
It’s a tactic as old as politics — when you can’t argue the merits of a case, attack the messenger.
No matter. I believe county leaders are wrong about their proposed financing scheme.
And if local citizens have to sue the county government to decide what’s right, then so be it.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
June 18, 2003

City Has Nothing To
Gain From Subdivision
Three thoughts should come to mind as the city council ponders a developer's request to extend city water and sewer lines to a proposed subdivision on W.E. King Road outside the city limits.
First, why should the city use taxpayers' money to help a developer make money on property located outside the city? The city should emulate the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority's policy of requiring developers to pay for line extensions to subdivisions. Once the lines are built to the authority's specifications and tested, they are conveyed to the authority. The city should also hold the developer to the city's standards for water and sewer line construction with both extensions to the development and lines inside the development.
Second, what possible benefit is there to the city of Commerce in annexing any subdivision, but particularly an R-3 subdivision? The cost of providing education and other services to 44 households will far outweigh any revenue the city will derive from those houses and their occupants. Two weeks ago, Dr. Jeff Dorfman explained at a Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast how residential development costs a government. Given that Commerce has experienced little business or industrial growth and is undergoing a housing boom, the city is at risk of seeing its school tax burden falling more heavily on residents.
Third, the owner of the property is reportedly interested in having it annexed – which would put the city in the position of having to provide water and sewage services. In voicing support for annexation Councilman Bob Sosebee suffered an ethical lapse at the city council's June 9 meeting. While he promised to abstain from voting on the grounds of a possible conflict of interest, Sosebee nonetheless voiced support for the annexation of the tract. As a co-worker of the developer, Sosebee will be in a position to sell lots or houses should the subdivision be built. He should recuse himself not just from voting on the matter, but also from the discussion.
The developer has every right to build a subdivision, and to ask the city for assistance. The Commerce City Council, however, has no obligation to the developer, only to the citizens and taxpayers of Commerce. The city has nothing to gain from annexing the subdivision and should offer to run water and sewer lines only if the developer will pay for them.
The issue is not stopping growth. The issue is the city making fiscally responsible decisions about growth. Residential growth may be inevitable, but the city has no obligation to incur the expenses associated with developments outside the city limits nor to annex land that will be used for residential development. It is especially crucial for the protection of the Commerce School System that the city not needlessly incur the legal obligation of educating the children from additional houses by annexing a subdivision. If the developer wants to buy water and sewage treatment from the city, fine, but let him build the line extensions, distribution and collection networks at his own expense.


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