Jackson County Opinions...

SEPTEMBER 3, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
September 3, 2003

The ‘Second Generation’ Is Coming Of Age
We hit a couple of inevitable milestones in the Beardsley household this past week.
First Laura called to inform us she was engaged. Second, Steven turned 21.
We were not particularly surprised, of course. Laura’s intended had forewarned us that he planned to ask our daughter to marry him during a trip to Niagara Falls, and it was fairly predictable that 21 years after his date of birth that our son would reach the legal drinking age.
Nor were we displeased by any means. Laura’s fiancé is a fine young man she’s dated for years. And once your son hits age 20, well, you can hardly wish for him not to turn 21, given the alternatives.
Maybe it was my imagination working on Labor Day, but when I stared into the mirror to shave Monday morning I would swear I looked a good bit older than I’d looked just hours before.
When your child marries, you suddenly realize that the potential exists for grandchildren, though of course all too often grandchildren arrive before sons-in-laws or daughters-in-laws. In my 20th century perspective, however, marriage of one’s children is prerequisite to the arrival of grandchildren, laws of nature be damned.
When the time comes, I will be thrilled, but I am in no hurry. Repeat, no hurry. The face in Monday’s mirror had aged, but to my critical (even without my glasses) eye, it had not aged that much yet. I am much too young, I think, to even ponder such things. (I am prone to lie to myself.)
Before last week I never considered what it might be like to walk my only daughter down the aisle and give her away, though surely I’ve reckoned it would occur. Now, that event is on the horizon somewhere within the next year. The fact that I’ve never seen a father of the bride botch that chore gives me confidence that I too can do it when the time arrives.
A county commissioner predicted upon hearing the engagement news that I would have plenty of editorial ideas in the near future. He’s right, and he’ll probably enjoy reading about something other than the county commissioners. He also said that a wedding is expensive but can be financed through a lease-purchase arrangement with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
The 21st birthday is not that tremendous a milestone, but it is the last birthday before the 100th that anyone looks forward to. A young person spends the first part of his life, awaiting the 12th, 16th and 21st birthdays and the rest of it lamenting getting old.
When I was 21, the drinking age was 18, and because you could be sent at that age to Vietnam to die for your country, the American public seemed to think that 18 was the age at which one became an adult. Once the draft ended and the war was over, state after state reconsidered and now 21 is the alleged age at which one becomes legally an adult.
The two events are unrelated, but they offered a double-whammy of evidence that the reflection in the mirror Monday is the real me. My kids are grown (and right well, I think); the second generation is taking over.
If it needs me, I’ll be in the recliner.


 Editorials
The Jackson Herald
September 3, 2003

Company welcome, but $14 million tax giveaway isn’t
The good news is that a major Fortune 100 company is interested in building a $140 million distribution center in Jackson County.
The bad news is that some of our county leaders are so anxious to get the business that they agreed to abate property taxes on the facility for 10 years at a cost of some $14 million, if the company decides to locate here.
We have no qualms about this company or its plans for a distribution warehouse near Commerce. It would employ a number of people, some 200 to start, with plans to expand in the future. And from what we can tell, the company would be good for Jackson County as a “marquee” business along I-85.
But we are very troubled by the huge tax abatement agreed to by some of our local leaders. We do not believe it was necessary to abate $14 million in taxes to interest this company in Jackson County.
We don’t have all the state’s abatement numbers, but we believe this has to be one of the largest tax abatements ever offered by a local government in Georgia to an economic development prospect.
So why did local leaders agree to such an unheard of incentives offer?
In a word, politics. The offer was negotiated by commissioners Sammy Thomason and Harold Fletcher, along with Commerce city officials. That group cut local economic development professionals out of the negotiations, professionals who might have been able to negotiate a more reasonable deal.
The heart of all that is the upcoming 2004 re-election campaigns of Thomason and Fletcher. Both men need to pull votes from the Commerce area to stay in office and see landing a big industry there as a feather in their political caps.
In addition, there has been some long-standing acrimony between the Thomason-Fletcher team and chamber of commerce president Pepe Cummings. Both commissioners have been seeking to have Cummings fired so that the BOC can take control of all local economic development efforts.
But our commissioners are amateurs in the economic development game while Cummings is the professional. That much is clear today because it’s doubtful that a professional negotiator would have agreed to a $14 million tax abatement.
We have researched this company and its distribution warehouse locations in other states. While many of those communities did offer local incentive packages, none approached the $14 million tax abatement agreed to by our leaders.
For example, when this firm located a distribution center in one Western state, the deal was a seven-year, 60 percent abatement (in a county of 112,000 people). In a large Florida county, the deal was a combined $3 million in incentives from local and state sources. And projects from similar firms across the country have gotten far less than $14 million in incentives.
We believe this company would be good for Commerce and Jackson County. Frankly, we don’t blame it for negotiating a sweet deal for itself.
But we do blame county commissioners Thomason and Fletcher for agreeing to give away $14 million in taxes in an effort to prop up their flagging political fortunes.
This huge deal should have been negotiated by professionals, not amateurs.
The price of that mistake is $14 million.

 

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
September 3, 2003

Up to the courts to protect citizens’ rights
There’s a certain David vs. Goliath tone to the lawsuit between a group of citizens and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. At issue is a question of how the BOC plans to finance a new courthouse, but the reach of this lawsuit goes far beyond the boundaries of Jackson County.
Indeed, some of the state’s most powerful political forces are lined up against the citizens’ group. Millions of dollars are at stake, not just here, but all across the state.
I’m not one who generally expounds conspiracy theories, but one could make the argument that what has happened in Georgia with lease-purchase financing is something of an organized effort by government officials to take away the citizens’ right to vote on local debt issues.
The lease-purchase system in Georgia was created by two very powerful groups — the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. Those groups represent local towns and counties and are powerful lobbying organizations.
At the behest of those two groups, lease-purchase deals were allowed in Georgia starting in the mid-1980s. Through their lobbying efforts, the Georgia General Assembly created laws to govern how such deals were to be done.
But then it gets worse. Knowing that these laws might face a lawsuit, the GMA paid a Rome lawyer to file a friendly lawsuit. What came from that suit was a friendly court ruling that has since been used many times to justify the legality of lease-purchase deals in the state.
But not only are the powerful city and county lobbying groups fighting this citizens’ lawsuit, but also bond lawyers. It’s no accident that King and Spalding lawyers are both the BOC’s lawyers in this suit and also the bond lawyers planning to do the courthouse deal. K&S, and other large bond law firms, know that lease-purchase bonds are easy money and less messy than having to wait on citizens to vote on bond referendums.
So the reach of this lawsuit touches some of the most powerful and politically influential interests in the state. Millions of dollars in commissions and fees are at stake for the lawyers, ACCG and GMA. They do not want their system disrupted by a group of rogue citizens.
But let’s call a spade a spade — the lease-purchase system in Georgia is nothing more than widespread, organized political corruption, a ruse to take away voters’ right to vote on long-term debt by local governments. If the BOC wins this case, there will never be another bond referendum in Georgia. All future debt issues will be lease-purchase-type deals done by towns and counties and school systems.
In short, if the local citizens’ group does not win this case against the BOC, every citizen in the state will be affected.
To some, that may not seem important. But without the right of citizens to vote on long-term debt issues, local governments could abuse taxpayers who would have no recourse but to pay. If you don’t like how a government spends money year-to-year, you can eventually vote out those public officials. But if we give local governments the right to create debt without voter consent, then voting out wayward public officials becomes moot — the debt lives long beyond their terms in office.
That’s why the Georgia Constitution prohibits local governments from taking on long-term debt without the approval of citizens.
The only hope we as citizens have left is the judicial system. Perhaps more than any other case in recent history, this case will test the moral character of our judicial process.
Our political system has allowed this abuse to be created. Only the courts can give citizens back their right to vote on long-term debt.
No one knows how the courts will rule on this issue. It is likely to be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court no matter which side wins this first round.
But the biggest question of all is this: Will the state’s judicial system follow the law and protect citizens from abusive local governments, or will that system, too, bow to powerful political pressures and sanction such abuse?
We shall see.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorial
The Commerce News
September 3, 2003

Improve Traffic Flow At Banks Crossing
As construction of the Home Depot at Banks Crossing progresses, officials of Banks and Jackson counties need to consider the impact this big business will have on traffic at Banks Crossing.
The new store, along with two recently-opened restaurants, will add to the traffic problems affecting businesses in both counties. Attention needs to be provided to alleviating the problem before Home Depot opens its doors.
Jackson County has plans to open an access road from Stanley Tanger Boulevard west to the Yarbrough-Ridgeway Road and to extend Steven Tanger Boulevard south to Ridgeway Church Road, but these plans seem to have been pushed back, possibly by the road demands of the new Toyota plant, the proposed new courthouse and implication of a major industry locating near Commerce.
Both counties have an interest in expediting traffic flow at Banks Crossing, the economic engine generating the bulk of the sales tax revenue both counties need. Getting people in and out efficiently (and safely) is crucial to maximizing the traffic flow at Home Depot, Tanger II, the restaurants and other businesses – and maintaining and improving the flow of sales tax dollars to both counties.


Warning: State Budget Crisis To Be Painful
Do you have a loved one in a nursing home, children going to school or are you employed by a state agency?
If so, brace yourself. Georgia faces a budget crisis so as to make last year’s $600 million look like a loss of petty cash and Gov. Sonny Perdue has said there will be no new taxes and no tax increases.
Medicaid alone faces a $500 million shortfall. Overall, the numbers have been put at from $1 billion to $2 billion less revenue than it takes to maintain the status quo in services in Georgia. Perdue has already ordered a 2.5 percent revenue cut from every department for this fiscal year; another five percent is proposed if the state’s revenue stream does not improve. And that’s just for this fiscal year.
The idea that there is sufficient waste in government to absorb the cuts is no longer espoused by anyone, following several belt-tightening sessions in recent years. These cuts will mean loss of services and loss of jobs.
Education and medical care take up 78 percent of the state budget, so it is inconceivable that they can both be protected in time of a massive budgetary shortfall. This past winter as officials pondered how to deal with that budget crisis, a proposal to cut Medicaid, the prediction was that trimming Medicaid would result in 10 percent of Georgia’s 357 nursing homes having to close. Georgia dodged that crisis by increasing the taxes on tobacco products and utilizing an incredibly optimistic revenue forecast – which has put Georgia in the position of needing more mid-year budget cuts.
Right now, Georgia is only two months into its 2004 fiscal year, so the immediate focus will be to find enough places to cut funds to meet the constitutional requirement of a balanced budget. That promises to be a task not likely accomplished without a lot of political teeth gnashing, intense lobbying and real pain for both those making the decisions and those affected by them. Still, unless spending picks up, it will be nothing compared to what Georgia will face as it tries to craft the 2005 budget. Work on that will begin this winter.
Be prepared. Expect state parks to close, the number of students in classrooms to grow, hospitals and nursing homes to close, prisons to release inmates early, state law enforcement services to be curtailed and hiring freezes that will make dealing with any state entity much more troublesome.


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