Jackson County Opinions...

NOVEMBER 12, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
November 12, 2003

On Tax Digest Goof, Courthouse Location, Etc.
Short takes on a variety of topics:
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A lot of people are wondering how the county tax digest can be artificially inflated by $119 million – about eight percent – and no one notice until it’s too late.
County officials are quick to paint the snafu as “an opportunity” to prevent another foul-up, but you don’t see anyone admitting responsibility for not catching the error, the ultimate result of which is that children in the Jackson County School System will get short-changed.
Although the amount is amazing, the incredible shrinking tax digest is hardly new. On many past occasions city and school officials have set their tax rates only to see the tax digest (and the revenue from tax rates) shrink due to mistakes and appeals in assessments.
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I suspect that the new Jackson County Courthouse will indeed be a beautiful and functional facility, but that doesn’t change the politics of its location at all.
For all those speakers at the “groundbreaking” ceremony (where officials shoveled up tiny scoops of dirt from future pavement) who complimented the commissioners on their courage, I would note that courage can be misapplied. It took courage for the terrorists to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center, but that doesn’t make us appreciative.
It really is the thought that counts.
To celebrate their historic twin achievements of building a much-needed courthouse and skewering Jefferson, the commissioners plan a “topping out” ceremony when the roof goes on and a multi-day “dedication festival” after it is completed. You’re invited.
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The victory of incumbents in last Tuesday’s Commerce elections suggests that whispers of discontent with the city council and school board remain just whispers because there really isn’t much discontent.
For the past year, the two groups seem to have gotten along fairly well, reversing a couple of Hatfield & McCoy years. It would be nice to think that the peace will last.
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The chamber’s “eggs and issues” breakfast last Wednesday featuring local legislators provided a consensus that the General Assembly will focus on its budget in the 2004 session. Duh. What it did not offer was anything concrete as to what the legislators will do about the expected cash shortfall.
One hint from Sen. Casey Cagle is tightening the requirements for Medicaid because too many “Medicaid babies” are being born. These kids are going to be born, and when the state-funded program does not pay for them, guess who will? Local hospitals, like BJC, which are already having economic problems.
Thus, once again, “savings” declared by our brave politicians will actually be the shifting of costs to local government.
The healthcare system in Georgia and the U.S. is on the verge of a major crisis. We will either complete the transition to socialized medicine or drop the notion that every person in the country is entitled to healthcare, regardless of ability to pay. Talk about tough decisions to be made.


Editorial
The Commerce News
November 12, 2003

Beware: The Cost Of Traffic Tickets Going Up
Seeking a way to pay for a new data system that will enable its police department to more easily exchange information with other jurisdictions, the city of Commerce proposes to add a $12 surcharge to all fines and forfeitures. For a $75 speeding ticket, that’s a 16 percent increase.
The surcharge will also apply to misdemeanor offenses handled in municipal court and is expected to generate $2,000 a month.
Given that the Commerce Police Department issued 350 traffic citations last month, a lot of people will be affected by the new charge. The beauty of it from a political standpoint is that few people will oppose increased costs to those whose activities make a police department necessary.
Current surcharges already include a 10 percent jail fund charge, a 10 percent add-on for training, a $5 fee for the state Peace Officers Standards and Training Benevolence Fund and $5 for the victim’s Assistance Fund. For someone convicted of a DUI, there’s a $25 probation fee and a $50 fee for a “brain and spinal injuries” fund. For someone convicted of DUI, the base fine of $500 is supplemented by $225 of add-ons.
The multiple surcharges make law enforcement look like a revenue racket rather than a public safety enterprise.


‘Reform’ Toward Disaster
At last Wednesday morning’s “eggs and issues” breakfast meeting of the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce, Sen. Casey Cagle suggested that “property tax reform” may well be on the General Assembly’s to-do list next year.
Nothing against tax reform, but it is telling that the one bit of tax “reform” the state-level politicians are willing to tackle is one whose effect will be not upon state funds as much as upon the budgets of local school systems and city and county governments.
Georgia gets a quarter mill of property taxes a year, the total of which makes up a minuscule part of the state budget. By contrast, 159 county school systems are totally dependent upon property taxes. How convenient for the politicians who can “reform” the tax base of school systems without significantly affecting the tax base upon which the people doing the “reforming” must operate.
There is always a gap between the amount of taxes the public thinks it should pay and the level of service it expects of government. The same is true with politicians. Too often, the politicians work to reduce the former and do nothing about the latter, but when it comes to education, the General Assembly is infamous for mandating levels of service and performance but failing to live up to its funding obligations. The mid-budget funding cuts of 2002 and 2003 have devastated school systems that were left to fulfill contractual and legal obligations out of local funds – derived from property taxes. It would be more beneficial to Georgians, particularly the children, if the General Assembly would reform its own house before worrying about the property tax base crucial to school systems and local governments.
The “reform,” presumably some kind of freeze on tax assessments, will push many school systems already on the verge of the 20-mill tax cap over the edge. There may be money-saving efficiencies yet to be discovered, but they’re most likely to be found at the state system level and should be identified before the local educational revenue source is compromised.
Georgia continues to shift the educational burden from state government to local government. “Reforming” the local tax base without reforming the state educational bureaucracy, the Quality Basic Education Act and the General Assembly’s funding of QBE will just hasten disaster.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
November 12, 2003

No shining monument to BOC
I did not go to the courthouse “groundbreaking” last week. Given that the county has had earth moving machines grinding away for weeks, the event seemed designed more for political grandstanding than as a real public ceremony.
I was not alone in that silent protest. With only 150 people attending the event, it did not generate much interest. Or, to paraphrase a member of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, that means another 42,850 people in Jackson County stayed home.
Those who did attend were largely court officials who will get shiny new offices, or some of the lawyers, bankers, contractors and others who are making money off the deal, feeding at the trough of public finance.
Although construction work on the courthouse goes forward unabated, the citizens’ lawsuit against the BOC is also going forward. Sometime next year, it will be heard by the Georgia Supreme Court.
No matter what the outcome of that case, it will not stop work on this building. County officials, along with bond lawyers and a timid judicial system, made sure the public would not have a say in the debt of $25 million to pay for the facility.
So why is the litigation continuing? Because there are some principles worth fighting for, even if an eventual victory is a hollow one.
If our state is to be governed by the rule of law, then it is law which much be followed. Misconduct by public officials cannot be justified simply because skirting the law is more convenient than adhering to the law. If that is our standard for public conduct, then our rights as citizens have been seriously eroded.
In the most recent court filing by the citizens’ group, attorney Wyc Orr made an impassioned argument about why this case was important not to stop the courthouse, but rather to uphold the principles on which our government is supposed to rest. Here’s an excerpt from his document:

“To date, the rule of law and of our state’s constitution as the fundamental law have been ignored. Form has been exalted over substance, as have considerations of compelling need for a courthouse, and the influence of those interested therein, been exalted over citizens’ rights as guaranteed by the constitution. Faced with this challenging case, all of the Jackson County Superior Court judges recused themselves, but only after issuing a so-called ‘recusal order’ that was a tract in effect campaigning for execution and implementation of the very ‘lease purchase’ agreement at issue ...
“If the appellants in the end cannot stop the juggernaut that presently insists on circumventing the voters of Jackson County through the disingenuous use of the so-called ‘lease-purchase’ agreement that is so obviously and facially unconstitutional under the historic standards set by this court, then at least they will have done their best to reveal the mockery and charade which will culminate in the new courthouse that will stand for a century or more as a shining monument to the injury done to our system by this case. Some efforts are worth the risks that attend them.”

Indeed, at issue now isn’t bricks and mortar of a building, but rather the bricks and mortar of our judicial system. If a local government can bypass the state’s constitution, and do so with the incestuous approval of judicial officials, then our constitution is not worth the paper it is written on.
The absence last week by thousands of Jackson County citizens from the pomp-and-circumstance of a “groundbreaking” speaks loudly as a silent protest to government abuse.
This courthouse will indeed be a “monument,” but not in the way BOC leaders believe. Rather than being a monument to their skill as leaders, it will, as Orr so aptly stated, be a “shining monument to the injury done to our system.”
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
November 12, 2003

HOPE criteria changes needed
There are a number of proposals floating around that would significantly change who is eligible for HOPE scholarships. The problem is, the HOPE program is running out of money, in part because the program’s income has reached a plateau, and in part because so many students are using HOPE to go to college.
To remedy that problem, state political leaders are debating various plans to “tighten up” requirements for HOPE.
We welcome that debate because the current system has been much abused. For one thing, there is tremendous pressure on high school teachers to inflate grades so that students will qualify for the HOPE funds. In some schools, grade inflation has become a huge problem, causing students to believe they are prepared for college when in reality, they may not be. The result is that unprepared student hit college and have to take remedial courses, or they become discouraged, lose interest and drop out.
In addition, the criteria for having a “B” average in high school varies from school to school. A “B” at one school might be a “C” at another or an “A” at a third. There is no real objective standard in high school grades.
One proposal floated by Gov. Sonny Perdue would use SAT scores as one part of the HOPE formula. But that has met stiff resistance from those who claim the SAT is bias against minorities and would exclude some students from HOPE who really need the money.
Other proposals would tighten up how a “B” average is calculated in high schools, making it tougher for struggling students to hide lower grades.
We don’t know what the final outcome will be, but we believe the system needs some serious debate and clarification.
Without good, solid standards, HOPE will become just another middle-class welfare entitlement, a handout to both the deserving and undeserving.


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