Jackson County Opinions...

July 9, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
July 9, 2003

Lawsuit Has
Implications For
Rest Of State
Speakers at last Thursday's "Freedom Rally" invoked images of 1776 as they railed against the Jackson County Commissioners' plan to finance the new courthouse.
Thursday's rally was a fine example of Americans utilizing their Constitutional freedoms of assembly and speech, the sort of gathering the founding fathers might have envisioned and one they would certainly have welcomed. There are times when the will of the governed must be forced upon those who govern – or extreme measures must be taken by the citizens in order to be heard by those who govern.
At issue here in the eyes of the assemblers was the "right" to vote on the courthouse funding. You'll see the "NO COURTHOUSE WITHOUT VOTE" bumper stickers.
Legal scholar that I'm not, I have no clue whether we have a legal right to vote on this project. No one in Commerce has arisen to complain about the city building a $8 million sewer plant without a referendum, a project to be financed in part with a state loan.
Do we have a right to vote on the new sewer plant? That would be not only the position of the Concerned Citizens of Jackson County, but also that of their attorney. I am content to let the courts decide this matter.
Georgia has other ways to incur debt without the consent of those who must pay it. The most popular is the creation of an authority. The Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority has incurred debt backed by the county. Jackson County is obligated for 20 years to repay its debt on the Bear Creek Reservoir. The county airport authority, the Industrial Development Authority and the Commerce Downtown Development Authority can also go into debt on our behalf without a vote. The commissioners’ first preference for avoiding a vote was a building authority. Thanks to our state senators, that was shot down.
This is round two.
Jackson County has used the lease/purchase option for years to purchase vehicles. So has Commerce. No one has complained, though those items are tools for avoiding the constitutional debt provision. They, clearly, were addressed in legislation in the 1980s. No one claims the lease/purchase of Commerce's $500,000 fire truck is illegal.
This funding fight is a continuation of the battle over the location of the courthouse. Had the commissioners opted to use the Leo Daly plan for a downtown facility or found a way to locate their "campus" on the U.S. 129 bypass closer to Jefferson, the opposition would be a fraction of what it is now. Sure, no matter what courthouse plan was approved, some citizens would say it was too expensive and might propose the same challenge now issued.
We need a courthouse, a jail, new sewer plants, reservoirs and schools, but bond referendums are difficult to pass with a public that thinks it is already taxed too much.
How do we finance major capital projects, some required by law or mandate, in this climate? We can’t afford a vote every time debt is required, constitution or no, but perhaps we should when the price hits a certain level. A lawsuit filed in Jackson County may settle that question for all of Georgia.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
July 9, 2003

Friday meeting another act of BOC defiance
That the Jackson County Board of Commissioners set a required public hearing on financing a new courthouse for 9 a.m. on Friday is telling.
It says once again that this board is determined to avoid real public input in its courthouse financing scheme, so a meeting was set at the most inconvenient time possible for public participation.
But that move isn’t surprising. This BOC has a history of avoiding public input and participation, especially in the courthouse controversy. It has, at times, even acted illegally to avoid public participation.
The truth is, Friday’s meeting is just another act of BOC defiance.
Just look at the record:
• In early 2001, this BOC met secretly and illegally with the old “courthouse committee.” No one knows exactly what was said at that meeting, but it is clear that the BOC dismissed that group and its two years worth of work on the subject.
• In early 2002, the BOC met in secret and agreed to buy the controversial Darnell Road land for a new courthouse. It did that without any kind of site-selection process or any public meetings.
• In February, the BOC announced it had taken an option on the Darnell Road site. But the board made the announcement at night on Ash Wednesday. Further, it said leaders would not take any questions or comments from the public at that meeting.
• In early March 2002, the BOC again met illegally, this time in the North Georgia Mountains at a “retreat” to discuss the courthouse matter. Meanwhile, it refused to release records related to the courthouse site option.
• In late March 2002, the BOC held a series of “public meetings” on the courthouse site. But those meetings were little more than a dog-and-pony show. When citizens did rise to speak against the site, they were belittled by BOC members. BOC chairman Harold Fletcher said at those meetings that “no final decision” had been made on the Darnell Road site, but other witnesses tell us that in private, he was saying it was a “done deal” and no amount of public outcry would stop it. In short, he lied to the public during those meetings.
• In May 2002, the BOC voted illegally in secret to buy the Darnell Road land.
• In April of this year, the BOC attempted to have the Georgia General Assembly create a building authority to use as a means of financing the courthouse project. That effort failed due to a public outcry about the plan.
Now this BOC has set a “public hearing” over proposed lease-purchase financing at a time that most of the public cannot attend. It’s just another example of how this BOC continues to dismiss public input into the county’s business.
No wonder over 200 people turned out last week during the holiday time to hear about an impending legal challenge to the BOC.
With its history of avoiding public input, this board has invited a lawsuit.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
July 9, 2003

Why planned suit will make history
One of the key questions raised regarding an impending lawsuit against the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is, Why have lease-purchase deals not been questioned before? If “everybody’s doing it,” then why can’t this BOC do it to finance a new courthouse?
But before we discuss that question, it’s necessary to know how and why lease-purchase deals came about in the first place.
This type of public financing came about in the late 1970s after the passage of Proposition 13 in California. The passage of Proposition 13 made it almost impossible for local governments in that state to borrow money since it required a two-thirds vote of the public for a government to establish debt.
So local governments in California looked around for a way to get around that standard and came up with lease-purchase deals. Once governments in other states heard about the plan, it spread across the nation as a way for local governments to finance long-term expenses without having to ask for voter approval.
In the late 1980s, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law outlining how such deals should take place in this state. Like most states, Georgia has a constitutional provision that says local governments cannot issue debt without the consent of voters.
A “friendly” lawsuit was then filed in Rome to test the law so that local governments would have a supporting precedent to point to in case the law was ever seriously challenged.
It is that lawsuit which lawyers for the BOC base their defense of the proposed $25 million financing of a new Jackson County courthouse.
But here’s the difference between that suit and what’s happening in Jackson County: The Rome suit was not a true test case. The person filing the suit represented himself and didn’t have a lawyer.
Moreover, that Rome suit involved smaller-dollar personal property items, such as computers, software and a fire truck, whereas the Jackson County situation involves high-dollar real estate and construction to the tune of $25 million.
Finally, the Rome suit challenged the entire Georgia Code whereas the impending Jackson County suit will likely focus more narrowly on how this BOC seeks to use the code.
County lawyers will no doubt continue to sing about the Rome suit, but it really isn’t on point with what Jackson County wants to do.
Since lease-purchase deals began, they have slowly expanded in scope. The system started off being used for smaller, personal property items, such as in the Rome case. But it soon spread to building additions, small building projects and now, high-dollar construction projects. It’s scope has expanded with time as more and more governments see it as a way to avoid bond referendums or SPLOST votes.
But I don’t believe it was ever the intent of the Georgia General Assembly for lease-purchase financing to be used as a vehicle to get around the Georgia constitutional debt provision. It was intended for computer purchases (which were just getting started in the late 1980s) and small personal property transactions.
But the BOC’s plan here is to finance an amount, $25 million, that is almost the equal to the entire county budget for one year. If that isn’t “debt” as envisioned by the Georgia Constitution, then nothing is.
So why haven’t these kind of large deals been seriously challenged before now?
Two reasons:
1. It’s a complex financing scheme and it’s virtually impossible for average citizens to understand all the details. Lawyers know that and exploit the complex nature of the financing to confuse those who bother to ask about it. For the most part, our eyes glaze over when a local government starts talking about “lease-purchase financing.” (And to be honest, most of us in the state’s media haven’t asked enough questions either.) Just look at Monday’s meeting: It took seven high-dollar lawyers to meet with the BOC to discuss the impending lawsuit.
2. Most local governments are careful to build community consensus behind large-dollar public projects. Once a consensus has been reached, no one really bothers to look at the details over financing. In Jackson County, however, there is no consensus behind the courthouse project. In fact, it has been a huge controversy. So more questions were bound to be asked about the project’s financing than in a situation which has a large measure of public support.
It is clear to anyone who looks at the last 18 months in Jackson County that the intent of the BOC in using lease-purchasing for a courthouse is to avoid any kind of public vote. Members of the BOC have admitted that they know they can’t win a bond referendum and that is why they are pursuing this lease-purchase alternative.
This case will make history in the state and its ramifications will even echo in the halls of the Georgia Capital.
Although I believe the citizens’ group will win this lawsuit, no matter what the judicial outcome, the General Assembly cannot stand by silent while local governments end-run the state constitution with questionable lease-purchase deals.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
July 9, 2003

DMVS Cut Reduces Service To Citizens
The Georgia Department of Motor Vehicle Services performed a local disservice last week when after years of offering driver's license exams and renewals in Commerce it abruptly ceased the service.
It was certainly a convenience for the driving public to be able to go to the city's recreation office on Carson Street the first Tuesday and Wednesday of any month to renew a license – or for 16-year-olds, to take the road test. Without an explanation, DMVS terminated that service last Wednesday.
DMVS would not respond to inquiries as to why this took place. "We're still waiting for official word so we can put out a news release," was the response, indicating that others have tried to figure out what is going on and that testing sites other than the one in Commerce were axed.
The cut will have the biggest effect on people trying to get their first license who will now have to go to some other exam site. DMVS, at last check, was still providing services in Homer and at the Athens post of the Georgia State Patrol on U.S. 129. However, those seeking the road tests must make an appointment well in advance of the road test and some delays can be expected.
The situation is made worse by the fact that DMVS is so hard to reach. Every phone call requires a 5-15-minute wait accompanied every 10 seconds by a recording from one of several cheerful voices thanking callers for their patience and assuring them that one day a state employee might actually answer the phone and respond to the request for information.
Maybe it's asking too much for DMVS to provide any service in a year marked by state budget cuts, but it seems like the agency could have found other ways to trim its budget than to slash something so popular with the public. If DMVS is using drastic reductions in service to protest less-than-expected funding to make a political point, a few more terminations are in order. At the very least the agency should have had its explanation in hand before it cut back on service to the public.


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