Jackson County Opinions...

June 25, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
June 25, 2003

We Can Learn
From What Some
Cities Do Right
Vacations are necessary for the soul, and I can report that ours last week, in which Barbara and I flew to Denver then drove to Yellowstone National Park, was one of the best we've had.
I'm not big on vacation reports, but inasmuch as I have to fill this space weekly and am otherwise uninspired, I'm going to inflict my impressions upon you just the same.
Among them:
•Denver excels at sprawl, perhaps surpassing Atlanta. The developments I saw from Interstate 25 north of town were ugly as anything Gwinnett County has produced. The sagebrush high plains do not make beautiful subdivisions, particularly when there's about 10 feet between houses.
•Some of the vistas in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks were enhanced by carpets of bright yellow flowers. Examination revealed the flowers to be dandelions, the very "weed" that local yard enthusiasts attack without mercy.
•For the raw beauty of the west, the desolation can be overwhelming. Upon seeing a small house or a trailer in a remote treeless location 40 miles from the nearest town, I wondered what the occupants do to maintain their sanity, particularly in the winter.
•Maybe they drink a lot. Every town in Colorado and Wyoming that we saw had liquor stores and most had bars. To my great surprise, all of the "general stores" in Yellowstone also sold liquor.
In spite of my above comment about Denver's sprawl, an early morning walk through an older in-town subdivision revealed that sometimes city developers get it right.
Laid out in typical city blocks, the development has small lots, equivalent to our R-3 zoning, but without the clutter small lots create here with four vehicles, an RV or boat for every house. The lots appeared to be about 50 feet wide and twice that deep, but running down the middle of the block across the back of every lot is an alley wide enough for two cars.
The alley contains the storm and sanitary sewer systems, all of the garbage dumpsters and the utility access. It also gives residents rear access (in addition to driveways in front) so the extra cars, RVs, boats and trailers are out of sight in extra garages. Most of the yards are also enclosed with fences, many of them for privacy, but also to contain dogs.
The result is a neat little subdivision, enhanced at the time by the fact that almost every back yard had flowers in bloom, particularly roses. Not all of the yards are neat – many are completely cluttered – but the clutter is largely concealed.
This layout is not unique to Denver. Other older cities have used it as well, but it seems to be out of vogue. Additionally, in our rolling hills, the square block concept is harder to pull off as developers follow the lay of the land.
Still, as Commerce and Jackson County struggle with the demand for inexpensive housing and the need to begin conserving greenspace, a method of having small-lot subdivisions that actually look good is desperately needed.
We try to avoid making the mistakes other communities have made, but we can also benefit from looking at what they do right.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
June 25, 2003

Lawsuit only course left
No one likes litigation. But for the citizens of Jackson County, litigation is the only course left to stop an abusive county government.
That’s why we support the five county citizens who Tuesday announced plans to sue the Jackson County Board of Commissioners over the proposed financing for a new courthouse.
For over a year, the citizens of Jackson County have attempted to have a voice in the new courthouse process, only to be treated with total contempt by their elected officials.
But the lawsuit at hand is not about the location of the courthouse, or its design, or the contemptuous attitude of our county commissioners.
Rather, this suit is about a sham form of financing known as “lease-purchase” which is just a complex scheme to defraud citizens of their right to vote on long-term debt.
There is a lot at stake in this lawsuit, not just for Jackson County, but also for the state of Georgia. The precedent set in this case will echo across the state for decades to come.
The Georgia Constitution clearly states that local governments cannot incur long-term debt without a vote of the citizens. That vote can be in the form of a bond referendum, where citizens agree to tax themselves to fund a large capital project, or with a special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) to fund a capital project.
But this board of commissioners does not want to do either of those. Rather, it wants to enter into a lease-purchase deal to circumvent voters.
Those five Jackson County citizens believe that to use a lease-purchase arrangement for a $25 million courthouse is unconstitutional.
We agree. If this is not a long-term debt as viewed by the state constitution, then nothing is and the language in the constitution is meaningless.
But this case is about more than just the legal issues.
It is about how citizens relate to their local governments.
It is about the rights of citizens to participate in the process of local government decision-making.
It is about how citizens act to stop an abusive local government from trampling basic constitutional rights.
No matter what the eventual outcome of this lawsuit, those five county citizens who have stepped forward to take on their county government are to be commended. They are fighting for the rights of all citizens and defending our right to participate in local government.
We salute them for their courage and join them in their quest to enforce the language of the state’s constitution.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
June 25, 2003

Audit pricks county BOC hot air
This column is a time machine. I’m going to take you back to the fall of 2001 when the Jackson County Board of Commissioners set the county budget and tax rate for 2002.
A few of you might remember that time — following a year in which the county lowered taxes and used up some excess reserve funds, the BOC again raised the tax rate back up in the fall of 2001.
Taxpayers were upset, but BOC members defended the action as “necessary” to maintain county government. Here’s what a couple of BOC members said in 2001 about the 2002 tax hike.
Chairman Harold Fletcher: “We’re not expanding. We’re trying to maintain the status quo. There is nothing new (in the budget.)”
Commissioner Emil Beshara: “This budget reflects a bare bones minimum for maintaining Jackson County government as it has existed for the last several years.”
If you’re like me, you read those words and think that the county is having a difficult time and that no new spending was being added onto the backs of county taxpayers.
Now zip forward in time to today. We have in hand the 2002 county government audit and so it’s possible to see if the scenario outlined in 2001 was accurate.
Alas, like so much hot air coming from this BOC, what was said in 2001 was not accurate. Instead of “maintaining the status quo” as Fletcher promised, county government greatly expanded under his watch in 2002.
Instead of being “bare bones” as Beshara promised, the county budget got fatter.
The numbers don’t lie. Here’s what really happened in 2002 under this BOC’s “bare bones” agenda:
— The office of county manager grew from $129,700 in 2001 to $206,900 in 2002.
— The office of county finance grew from $239,100 in 2001 to $326,500 in 2002.
— The commissioners’ expenses grew from $467,600 in 2001 to $529,700 in 2002.
— Cost of courthouse expenses grew from $68,700 to $106,700.
— The planning and zoning department doubled from $152,200 to $306,100 under the “bare bones” budget.
— The cost of operating the administrative building grew from $151,200 to $278,000.
— The vague category of “community promotion” grew from $12,400 to $21,800 in a year where “nothing new” was supposedly added.
Overall, spending by the county jumped from $26.1 million in 2001 to $29.3 million in 2002, a jump of $3 million in just one year.
If that is “bare bones,” I’ll eat this newspaper.
What’s interesting about the county’s spending in 2002, aside from the $2.6 million it spent on the controversial courthouse project, is that the greatest increases came from the departments the BOC has the most control over.
In the category defined as “general government,” the BOC’s spending jumped a whopping 29 percent in 2002, more than any other major area of county government.
Public safety grew by 21 percent during the same time while the court system grew by a comparatively low 12 percent.
There are areas of county government where the BOC has only minimal control over certain costs. Some state-mandated functions have to be done by counties no matter what the cost.
But the BOC does have total control over the structure and cost of its own internal bureaucracy and it was in that area the county has become wasteful and spendthrift.
How?
By adding a slew of new employees to help county administration, but who have little to do with providing actual services to citizens. In addition, the county went on a new furniture spending spree in 2002 to dress up all the offices for those bureaucrats.
So how did that happen with such a “bare bones” budget?
Because the county’s tax rate is too high and county coffers are awash in cash.
Think about this: In spite of this huge growth in county spending in 2002, the county ended the year with a $2.3 million cash surplus. (If you consider borrowed money, that surplus grows to $4.4 million during the year.)
That’s why it’s time for the BOC to do something responsible and cut the county’s millage rate this year by a substantial amount. As was proven in 2002, if this county administration has money, it will get spent.
Here’s another fact to chew on: In 2000, the last year of the Waddell administration, the “general administration” part of county government spent $2.5 million. Last year, just two years later, that had grown by $1 million to $3.5 million.
And citizens got very little in return for those extra dollars.
They did not go to pave roads or fill potholes.
They did not go to build more recreation facilities in the county.
They did not go to hire more deputies to patrol the roads.
That $1 million mostly went to fund the county’s bloated and expanding bureaucracy.
That’s why this county administration, under the leadership of chairman Fletcher, is the most wasteful in the county’s history. No other administration has expanded county government with as much fat as has the current leadership.
Yes, the county government finished 2002 in the black, as was reported last week.
But that wasn’t because of good management — it’s because our county commissioners have raised taxes far above what is needed to sustain a normal operation of county government.
Politicians may lie to taxpayers about how their money is being spent, but the numbers tell the real story of our government’s excess spending.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
June 25, 2003

Another Medical Crisis Is Developing
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported on (another) growing medical crisis – a shortage of emergency rooms. During the last decade, the report said, the number of emergency room visits increased by 20 percent nationwide while the number of emergency rooms decreased by 15 percent.
The combination, particularly in large cities, has led to frequent cases where hospitals have to turn away ambulances bearing emergency cases, meaning critical treatment of sick or injured people is delayed.
Mergers and downsizing made necessary by budget cuts tied at least partially to declining government reimbursements have reduced the number of beds available for patients. At the same time, the population has increased and grown older, a lack of inner-city physicians has prompted people to use emergency rooms as their primary care physicians, HMOs ceased requiring approval for emergency room visits and the federal government required hospitals that accept Medicare to take all patients. It is not uncommon in Atlanta hospitals to wait six hours for treatment in the ER.
In a climate where the best public hospitals struggle to survive, expanded use of money-losing emergency rooms forces administrators to make tough decisions. An emergency room is a crucial part of a community's medical resources, but hospitals must weigh that expense against the survival or health of the entire facility.
BJC Medical Center is not immune to the problem, even though ER crowding is not an issue. As state and federal governments tinker with Medicaid and Medicare funding, small hospitals like BJC may be forced to close their emergency rooms to survive.
Less by design than by circumstance, emergency rooms have become primary health care providers for the poor. Every emergency room that closes, in addition to removing the critical first line of treatment for true emergency cases, limits access to health care for the poor. As options become limited, the remaining facilities face even greater pressures, the result being a two-front crisis beginning to bloom.
This development is just another symptom of a medical system in crisis. Starting with Congress, the government needs to decide what level of medical care it wants to offer and commit to the funds to sustain it. To this point, the politicians pretend that they can provide universal access to health care without paying the full, enormous cost. Soaring health insurance rates, the growing number of uninsured, a critical shortage of nurses, closing hospitals and nursing homes – and now the threat to emergency rooms – all point to the need for an overhaul.
There is no easy patch, no simple solution. But unless the politicians and the public come to a consensus on the level of care to be offered to anyone – and make and keep their commitment to fund it – the quality of health care in America, for all its technology, wealth and capabilities will rapidly decline.


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