Jackson County Opinions...

OCTOBER 22, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
October 22, 2003

County Seeks Sales Tax Funds Of Gun Outlet
Buoyed by its recent success in finding “misdirected” sales taxes due Jackson County, the board of commissioners is set to launch another sales tax probe.
The commissioners reportedly found several outlet stores not paying sales taxes to Jackson County. Last week, they discovered another outlet store that was quietly doing hundreds of thousands of dollars of business without paying sales taxes.
I’m referring to the Wood Street Firearms Outlet in Commerce, of course. It’s been in business at least two years, selling thousands of guns a year, plus ammunition, and paying not a penny to SPLOST, LOST or the education SPLOST.
A lot of folks are mad about that.
Commerce officials are red-faced, realizing that what was probably the town’s most successful business, not only was operating with a zoning violation, but also didn’t bother with a business license, property taxes or membership in the Commerce Area Business Association. They’re already planning to go back over two years worth of utility bills to refigure them for the commercial rate.
But it’s the county’s three school superintendents who are behind the latest county probe. The news of this alleged illegal business brought home the realization that thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales tax revenue are lost every year to illegal businesses. At a time when school systems and local government are having to pick up a lot of expenses previously paid for by the state, the recovery of lost tax revenue becomes a top priority.
While no accurate figures are available, the school chiefs think that the education SPLOST proceeds off illegal drug sales alone could build four new classrooms a year, while ad valorem taxes on inventory and equipment (vehicles, scales, firearms) could fund additional personnel. In short, government and school officials want to make crime – and criminals – pay.
The Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce supports the probe.
“Businesses that pay no sales taxes, property taxes or chamber membership dues have an unfair advantage over legal, law-abiding businesses,” noted President Pepe Cummings. “We just ask that the commissioners level the playing field, or at least reduce the tilt a little.”
Since it was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that conducted the raid last Thursday, it may be some time before local officials find out what kind of sales the alleged firearms outlet had and what kind of revenue they’ve missed out on during the past couple of years.
Chagrined local leaders would like ATF to drop its charges and let them handle the company.
“Commerce needs a first-rate gun shop, and this apparently was,” a spokesman for City Hall said on the condition that he not be quoted. “We just want them to be properly zoned, charged appropriately for utilities and to pay their taxes like the rest of us. It makes more sense to keep them in the community where they can help with taxes than to lock them in jail where the taxpayers have to foot the bill.”
“We see crime as a potential major contributor to our economy,” noted County Manager Al Crace. “Certain-ly it is recession-proof.”


Editorial
The Commerce News
October 22, 2003

Lack Of Public Interest May Be Crucial Later
Based on attendance at local budget hearings, the public is not nearly as interested in the workings of government as the public thinks it is.
Several years ago, the Georgia General Assembly, seeking to make life better for Georgians interested in local governments and taxation, passed laws requiring local governments, if they are raising taxes to hold not one, not two, but three public hearings prior to setting the new tax rates. In addition, the requirement kicked in even if the tax rate stayed the same or went down – as long as the total dollar amount went up.
Commerce has gone through its fourth taxing cycle since then, holding 12 hearings. Total attendance by interested taxpayers: two. Jackson County and the other municipalities in it have had similar displays of disinterest in that most critical of all government functions, the setting of tax rates.
This local anecdotal evidence suggests that even on the matter of taxes, the people are not as interested in affecting local government as they’d sometimes have us believe. Often, citizens decry the lack of “public input” before decisions are made, yet when the public is invited to participate, few people show up to make their interest known. It’s as if citizen interest in local government terminates at the edge of the recliner or the end of the booth at the coffee shop.
Yet when tax bills arrive, few citizens will be happy and many will be distressed. They will murmur about the cost of schools, the cost of city government and some will voice opinions about “wasteful spending.”
Every effort has been made to give citizens opportunity to voice opinions about the city budget and the city tax rate, but rarely does anyone take advantage of that opportunity. Government is fulfilling its legal and moral obligation to be open, but citizens fail their moral obligation to be informed and to provide input to those who govern.
Citizens may vent to the clerks at City Hall or at the Jackson County Administrative Building when they pay their tax bills, but they lost their chance to have their opinions considered when they ignored the multiple public hearings.
In the future, however, it may become even more important for citizens to express an opinion. Gov. Sonny Perdue has indicated that the whole state budget process will be overhauled, starting this year. That, combined with a severe funding shortfall means the way the state doles out money is likely to be significantly changed. A fall-out of that will be reduced state participation in local programs from education to law enforcement. Yet as the state reduces the amount of money it provides for health departments, school boards, police departments and other agencies, it will probably not decrease the obligations of local government. In short, much of every dollar the state cuts in spending for critical services or programs may just be shifted to the local taxpayer. Already that is happening, and the General Assembly has yet to meet.
The wholesale changes – and funding shifts – will make budgeting much more difficult for local government. When local government has to shift funds to pick up costs formerly paid by the State Crime Lab, for example, money must either be raised by new taxes or shifted from other programs to cover those costs. Similar shifts can be expected across the board, forcing local governments into worrisome decisions.
At that point, it will be crucial for citizens to let their opinions be known. Do you close the swimming pool or lay off police? Cut the hours of the Health Department or raise taxes? Questions like these will arise and will be answered with or without public input, but if citizens make their preferences known during the many public hearings held in the budget-setting and taxing meetings, public officials will have a better chance of meeting the greatest needs of the greatest numbers of citizens.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
October 22, 2003

Pool closing sends wrong message
It’s difficult to understand just what has happened to the City of Jefferson’s finances. The city has gone, virtually overnight, from a confident, aggressive community to one that is seemingly in financial retreat.
That whiplash has caught many residents off-guard, especially considering last week’s announcement that the city would be closing the public swimming pool.
The decision to drain the pool may make some sense financially, but it sends another, more troubling message which is difficult to ignore.
For a number of years, the Jefferson swimming pool and attending stadium complex was a key source of pride in the town. Built by Jefferson Mills in the early 1960s as a private venture for public benefit, the pool and stadium were long the center of the small town’s recreation. In fact, it was the only recreation available for kids 30-40 years ago.
In its heyday of the 1960s and early 1970s, the pool was the hub of the town’s day camp, which drew hundreds of kids each summer. The area around the city clubhouse up to the hillside where the pool is located would be covered with kids as they went from event to event.
I know, because I was one of those kids. With bathing suit and towel in tow, I and my friends ambled through the old gate on the back of the ball fields (now the football practice field) up to the pool for our daily swimming lessons. Older kids would have swimming races and awards would be handed out. It was a big deal.
That, of course, was a different era. We didn’t have the multitude of opportunities that kids have today for recreation. And we didn’t have access to private pools as many kids do today.
Times do change.
The pool and stadium were eventually donated to the city by Jefferson Mills and it became the town’s responsibility to maintain the facility.
But somehow, the city never really put much effort into the pool, certainly not as much as it did the adjoining football stadium and track facilities. The pool was allowed to run down and the maintenance cost began to go up. That, combined with less usage, led to last week’s announcement that the pool would be closed as a budget-cutting measure.
But I don’t buy the argument that a lack of use is the real problem. The problem is the lack of organized effort to make use of the pool as a long-term community asset.
Many communities attract kids to pool facilities through organized aquatics programs. In some communities, competitive swimming is a huge event.
The days of casual use for public pools is probably past, but it seems odd that no one has even attempted to build an organized aquatics program in Jefferson, at least not in recent years.
Don’t get me wrong — despite my nostalgia of years-gone-by, I’m not on a crusade to save the old swimming pool. Maybe it’s out of date and can’t be reworked to new standards. Maybe it’s just too expensive to run. Go ahead and fill it in with cement and make it into a parking lot.
But as we do that, consider this: Less than one-half mile from the pool, a new shopping center is planned at the Jefferson bypass, anchored by a large Kroger store.
Somehow, the juxtaposition of that growth next to a shuttered public swimming pool just doesn’t fit. Nor does the closing fit with the city’s recent spate of civic improvement projects, such as acquiring land for a new recreation complex and a civic center building.
If the city can’t afford to maintain a pool it was given free of charge, how can it ever afford to maintain a multi-million dollar recreation complex or civic center?
In the 1960s, the Jefferson swimming pool was a symbol of a small town’s progressive reach.
That we now hang an “out-of-business” sign on its gate symbolizes a different message.
It is, I fear, the wrong one.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
October 22, 2003

BOC: Citizens are just too stupid to know what’s best
Well, members of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners finally said what they really think about the citizens of Jackson County and the controversial new courthouse: The citizens of Jackson County are too stupid to know what’s best, so that board decided to bypass taxpayers and do it their way.
We’ve long known that members of the BOC hold the public in contempt. In private comments, members of the BOC make no bones about their disdain for the citizens in Jackson County and how they view all of us as ignorant masses. Now they’ve said as much in public (see story on page 2A of this weeks Jackson Herald).
What’s comical about their views, however, is that the BOC based its claim on decades-old bond referendums. Yes, voters did turn down two earlier bond referendums — OVER THREE DECADES AGO.
Well, we have news for members of this BOC — Jackson County has changed in the last three decades. And to clarify, one of those earlier referendums didn’t include a new courthouse, just a new jail. The other referendum would have torn down the existing historic courthouse, an idea that helped kill that referendum. In both instances, county leaders botched the handling of the referendums.
For members of the BOC to now say that they bypassed a bond referendum because those old referendums failed is either crazy, or is just a political diversion.
We believe it is the latter. The truth is, the citizens of Jackson County have a long history of supporting bond referendums and other major public expenditures when public officials offer real leadership.
Numerous times, the citizens of Jackson County have approved bond referendums to build new public school facilities in all three local school systems. Just look around for evidence of that.
And the citizens have a long history of approving SPLOST funds for water and other worthwhile infrastructure projects, when leadership has outlined how those funds would be used.
We believe the citizens of Jackson County would have also approved a bond referendum for a new courthouse, if this BOC had exhibited some leadership.
But it did not. Instead, this board decided we were all too stupid to have input into that process. That’s why the BOC, on its own and with no public input, decided on the new courthouse location.
Of course, members of the BOC claim to have held public hearings to solicit input about courthouse sites. But that was just a show. At one hearing, members of the BOC verbally attacked those in the audience who dared question their judgement. And in private, members of the BOC were saying that their site on Darnell Road was a “done deal” no matter what was said in the hearings. In short, members of the BOC lied to the citizens of Jackson County.
Because of its mishandling of the location question, members of the BOC knew citizens would not have approved a bond referendum. Their failure to provide real leadership early on compromised that possibility, therefore they decided to pursue lease-purchase financing as a means to bypass voters.
We believe the citizens of Jackson County have the right to have a voice in major local government decisions, such as building a $25 million courthouse. And we don’t accept the idea that the citizens of Jackson County are too dumb to have voted on a bond referendum. We trust the citizens of Jackson County to weigh all the facts and then make an informed decision.
It is, after all, our money which is being spent.


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