Jackson County Opinions...

AUGUST 27, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
August 27, 2003

Authority Now Host To Monthly Domestic Dispute
Since I regularly write up police accounts of domestic disputes, i guess I’m qualified to report on the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority.
For those who just tuned in, former county commission chairman Jerry Waddell manages the day-to-day operations. The current county commissioners just appointed his ex-girlfriend to the authority that, among other things, has hiring and firing power over Waddell.
This obvious conflict of interest has changed the dynamics of authority meetings, which amount now to a domestic dispute in the guise of a government meeting.
I don’t watch the Jerry Springer Show, so this is all kind of new to me. I don’t know the rules that apply, but if we had a public access channel willing to broadcast these otherwise excruciatingly-boring meetings, they might have a hit on their hands.
David’s goal at the authority is to make life even more miserable for her ex-boyfriend than it was when they were not exes. Waddell’s goal is to outlast his ex. Anyone whose lot it is to attend the monthly meetings ends up wondering when the simmering resentment will boil over into something requiring a call to 911.
In the guise of “becoming educated,” David asks for explanations and information – a lot more than she did when she was chairman of the same authority in a former life. Most of the questions are legitimate on the surface – but the intent is to find a loop with which to hang Waddell. In short, it’s a contest of wills.
Elton Collins, who chairs the authority, has become a referee. He takes up sparring with David, and in his corner are Warren Walker and Dean Stringer. At her side, David has Clay Dale. It would seem that David is overmatched, but she, or her county commission backers, may well win in the long run.
That’s because Collins’ term expires next year, and there seems little likelihood that he will be reappointed. With his replacement sure to be some hand-picked puppet to do the bidding of the commissioners (i.e. remove Waddell), the smart money says David will achieve her goal.
Yet nothing is certain in politics. Dale may come around, David may experience an epiphany or, slightly more likely, the Rapture could occur (I will not speculate on what vacancies that might cause). Or, the commissioners may be distracted, though if they lose the suit filed over the courthouse funding, they’ll be even more desperate to take over the authority, possibly to use as a means to finance the courthouse (a possibility being bandied about these days when everything the commissioners do gets connected to Darnell Road).
County government is a strange beast, but seldom has it been stranger than what we now see. When the commissioners turn an ex-girlfriend loose against an adversary, the behavioral bar has been dropped so low that there is no limit to what may happen, particularly as the 2004 election nears.
A government agency is no place for hosting domestic disputes. But that sort of defines the government we now enjoy. Stay tuned.


 Editorials
The Jackson Herald
August 27, 2003

Water authority should remain independent
The convoluted political drama in Jackson County seems to get worse every week.
Now there is some thought that one of the reasons the Jackson County Board of Commissioners wants to take over the county water authority is to use its bonding ability to finance the BOC’s courthouse project.
Although that idea may seem a little extreme, we have no doubt that the BOC would indeed attempt to do such a thing if they could get total control of the water authority.
The BOC is desperate to move forward with its courthouse plans, not as a service to county citizens, but as a monument to board members’ egos.
Currently, the BOC has its hands tied by a citizens’ group. That group has filed suit in court to stop the BOC’s misleading and perhaps illegal scheme to finance the deal.
We believe the citizens’ group has a good case and that once the issue is resolved in the Georgia Supreme Court, it may stop such schemes in the future.
But the main pressure on the BOC isn’t the outcome of the lawsuit — the real pressure is time. The BOC does not want the courthouse matter to be an issue in 2004, an election year.
Does the BOC want to use the water authority as a fall-back financing vehicle should the court case drag out?
We believe it does. For that reason, and for the long-term health of the county’s water and sewerage infrastructure, the water authority needs to be independent of direct BOC control.
Certainly new member Wanda David is snug in the BOC’s back pocket. The jury is still out on new member Clay Dale, but on several occasions recently, he has backed some of David’s anti-water authority agenda.
It is important, then, that the other three members on the authority, chairman Elton Collins, Warren Walker and Dean Stringer, hold firm to their independent positions.
Our water authority is too important to be manipulated by the BOC as a tool for other agendas.
It’s independence is paramount to protect the citizens who pay the taxes in Jackson County.

 

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
August 27, 2003

BOC knows ‘lease’ is just a sham
Next Tuesday, the Jackson County Courthouse will be the stage for a major showdown over the fate of a proposed new courthouse.
There, a judge will hear a lawsuit filed by a group of citizens in Jackson County against the Jackson County Board of Commissioners over a proposed plan to finance the new facility.
It’s a big case, much bigger than just Jackson County. This case could plow new ground in state constitutional law and set a precedent that will impact every county and city in Georgia.
At issue is whether or not the state constitution means what it says. According to the Georgia Constitution, local governments cannot issue long-term debt without the consent of local voters.
But debt is exactly what the BOC wants to do. To finance a new courthouse, the BOC wants to borrow $25 million and pay it back over the next 30 years. And they want to do that without allowing local citizens a chance to vote on the matter.
Of course, the BOC won’t admit that it is creating “debt.” In a complex deal involving several outside groups, the BOC deal is labeled a “lease.”
But lawyers for the citizens’ group will argue that calling the deal a “lease” is just a ruse, a way to twist words into hiding what amounts to long-term debt.
There are a lot of points involved in next week’s hearing. But one of the key arguments that will be debated is this question: Can the county walk away from this “lease?”
The ability to walk away from the deal is perhaps THE key point in this suit. Lawyers for the county will have to defend the deal as a lease and to do that, they will have to argue that the county is not obligated to the deal for the next 30 years.
But they know better. Once built and occupied, the county can never walk away from a new courthouse. To do so would ruin the county’s credit rating.
Last month, one commissioner admitted that to me. Here’s what he said:
“It is silly to propose that your future BOC walk away from an existing facility. First, it is unlikely that the courts would let us move back into the old courthouse. Which means that there would need to be an existing facility meeting the needs of the courts. So you’ll have to go through this whole process over again (site selection, construction, etc.) Do you think the taxpayers would put up with spending millions more just to please the anti-Darnell crowd?
“Walking away would also likely irreparably damage the County’s credit. Not a smart move in any way.”
Read that again — “Walking away would also likely irreparably damage the County’s credit.”
That once sentence says what everyone knows; once done, the county cannot walk away from this so-called “lease.”
And if the county cannot walk away, then the deal is really “debt” and citizens must be allowed to voted on the matter.
Of course, the citizens’ group will bring in witnesses to say the same thing. And they will have the words of various experts to support that position.
The BOC will make a counter argument. Its argument will point to a 1988 Georgia law and to a 1989 court suit. The BOC will attempt to frame its deal as just following the guidelines established by those two items.
No one knows how the courts will rule on this case. When you go to court, it’s like throwing dice in the wind. Anything can happen.
But here on the street, amongst the average taxpayers who will bear the burden of whatever happens in court, there is a strong belief that the BOC is just playing games with its citizens.
Conventional wisdom here believes that the BOC is trying to find a way to avoid a bond referendum because it believes voters would defeat its plans at the ballot box.
So what the BOC says in the courtroom on Tuesday will just be a performance for the judge. Their game plan will be to obscure and confuse the facts.
But deep down, members of the BOC know the truth: “Walking away would also likely irreparably damage the County’s credit.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
August 27, 2003

Deal Could Be Better, But It’s Good Enough
It will be October or later before we find out if Jackson County’s stunningly-generous offer to a major industrial prospect pays off. If you’re a Commerce resident, you have reason to hope it does; if you’re a Jackson County resident who does not live in Commerce, you might not be quite as thrilled.
The 10-year proposed tax abatement is causing some to say we’ve given away the store. By comparison, Haverty’s and Toyota got five-year phased-in abatements. All of the rosy data being put forth is based on the best possible scenarios in which every statement made by the company’s consultant proves true, which seldom happens.
Jackson County is prepared to write off nearly $15 million in future taxes. It is the length of the tax abatement that is most bothersome. Previous prospects have settled for five-year phased-in abatements, which suggests a 10-year absolute abatement is too generous. Every future prospect will expect the same treatment and existing industry could feel shortchanged.
The county expects to be able to collect taxes on 40 percent of the business’ inventory not protected by Freeport. We have no way of knowing if the 40 percent figure is realistic, and the value of inventory itself seems to keep rising. Both figures should be taken with a large grain of salt.
Being inside the city limits is reportedly crucial to the company for fire insurance reasons, but Jackson County school officials are understandably concerned as a prime industrial site moves into the Commerce school district for development. But Haverty’s, the Toyota plant and the huge Georgia Power facility all boost the county school tax digest; Commerce also needs an industrial tax base.
The process was confused and the offer perhaps too generous, but we hope it bears fruit because we very much want and need the jobs and tax base. If this company locates here, it will be an asset to Commerce and Jackson County, providing a benefit to taxpayers of both. That’s the bottom line.

Commissioners To Blame
For Costs Of Delay
District 2 commissioner Sammy Thomason likes to update his peers regularly on how much the litigation challenging the commissioners’ funding of the courthouse is “costing” Jackson County.
Last week, Thomason declared that the suit, which kept the commissioners from entering a 30-year lease-purchase agreement, has cost the county $6.7 million based on increases in the interest rate of less than one percent.
Without checking Thomason’s math, let it be known that the BOC’s decision to bypass the citizens and to sneak around the constitutional prohibition against incurring debt without the consent of the voters has cost the county much more.
Had the county commissioners involved the public in siting the courthouse and in financing it, Thomason’s numbers would be moot. But because the county schemed to avoid the voters, the commissioners have lost the opportunity to finance (through a bond referendum) the structure at historically low interest rates.
Voters and taxpayers should remember as well that the questionable lease-purchase arrangement is the most expensive of three options for financing the courthouse. If the commissioners were as cost-conscious as they are devious, the current increases in the interest rates would mean nothing. But these commissioners decided to ignore the people, then act surprised and offended when the voters challenged them. In the end, the higher cost of building is directly attributable to the actions of the BOC, as are the loss of faith in and credibility of the board of commissioners.


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