Jackson County Opinions...

FEBRUARY 18, 2004



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
February 18, 2004

Fights Over Annexations Are Almost Inevitable
The development of an industrial tract near Commerce could re-ignite tensions between the Jackson County and Commerce school systems.
What’s at stake is each system’s desperate need for industrial taxpayers to assure financial solvency without astronomical property tax rates. Jackson County educates the bulk of the children in the county, but has seen most of the industrial development go to Jefferson, which has its own school system. If Commerce can emulate Jefferson’s industrial development success, the county’s share of the industrial tax base stands to decrease. In a sense, Commerce and Jackson County are fighting for the same taxpayers.
This is one legacy of having three school systems. The two city tax bases can grow not just with development, but also through enlarging the corporate boundaries through annexation. The county school system’s tax base can grow via development, but it can also decrease in size as the two cities expand.
It may well be that in the future there will be enough business and industrial growth to support all three school systems, but right now not only are the city and county school systems trying to finance the increase in students from rapid population growth, but they’re also scratching for every dollar as state funding pays smaller and smaller percentages of the cost of educating kids.
Consider Andy Byers, Jackson County superintendent: He’s facing those two challenges plus the tax office snafu that trimmed about $1 million in tax revenue from this year’s budget. He’s struggling to keep programs operating. The last thing he wants to see is an attractive industrial site go off his tax digest onto the Commerce tax digest.
Larry White’s dilemma is not as severe now, but is similar. He’s got the same decreasing state funds and (without the new site) almost no industrially-zoned land through which his tax digest will increase. Commerce currently enjoys the lowest property tax rates in Jackson County, but that will not last if it cannot balance its residential growth with industrial growth.
Consider also that Jackson County is looking to finance new school construction with a bond referendum, a move that may encourage property owners to annex into Jefferson or Commerce to avoid getting stuck with new taxes. That move would make tracts in Commerce (and Jefferson) more attractive to industry than sites in Jackson County, further eroding the county school system’s ability to fund education.
This is not a case of good vs. evil. The city and county school boards must protect their ability to educate their children, but something has to give. Either the two will recognize the problem and work out some solution similar to the shared tax district covering development north of Georgia 98, or they’ll fight it out in court.
Commerce residents voted decisively in 1993 to keep their school system independent. Part of the price to be paid for smaller local schools is the continual fight for turf and taxes with the county school system. And it will be a fight.


Editorial
The Commerce News
February 18, 2004

Commerce Should Invest In More Curbs, Gutters
Maybe the Quality Growth Resource Team that visited Commerce will mention it, but the city could do a lot to improve its appearance by investing in more curbs and gutters.
Take a look at the parts of Homer Road north of Bi-Lo where curb and gutter was installed as part of a federal sidewalk grant, and you’ll be struck by how much better it looks. In addition to providing drainage (and doing away with ditches that are unsightly and require constant upkeep), the curb and gutter protects the pavement, reducing damage to the edge of the road.
A perfect example of the need is along Minish Drive and University Avenue around the city school system where the new sidewalks were installed – but a lack of curb and gutter is creating a muddy mess and damaging the road.
Subdivision developers are required to install curb and gutter. The city should consider adding it to its older roads for aesthetic and practical reasons.

Georgia Should Fund QBE As Law Requires
Some legislators are floating a proposal to totally finance education in Georgia through a sales tax, the idea being to remove the innocuous ad valorem (property tax), the most hated of all Georgia taxes. Part of the motivation behind this trial balloon is the fact that school systems across Georgia are being forced to raise property taxes this year to compensate for state funding cuts.
Georgia’s current funding crisis is a perfect example of why total reliance on sales tax is not a good idea. While its proponents argue with some validity that a sales tax is the most fair tax because it treats everyone the same (not a universally accepted position, however), the current economic recession demonstrates the challenges of an economy-based tax. You can’t count on it.
A better idea that takes from both the current funding mechanism and the sales tax proposal would be to supplement current state education funding with a sales tax and to fully fund the Quality Basic Education (QBE Act) as required by law.
It is a sad commentary on Georgia, though it may help explain the state’s dismal ranking of 50th in SAT scores, that Georgia has never funded its education programs to the level required by law. Many school superintendents believe that if QBE were fully funded, the present local financial crises would be largely averted. That is probably an oversimplification, but were Georgia to suddenly fund QBE at the level required by law, this current educational economic crisis would be over.
Simply put, the Georgia General Assembly has never lived up to the educational commitments it made to the children. Instead of a wholesale change in the way schools are funded with a tax that is not dependable, why not use the sales tax to supplement state funding to the level required by law?
An important advantage of maintaining local property taxes to finance education is flexibility. Wealthy or willing taxpayers should have the ability to provide their children with more than the state-required minimum, be it in facilities or programs. A move to sales-tax-only funding suggests the complete state takeover of local schools, a one-size-fits-all approach to education destined to prevent the state’s public schools from achieving even mediocrity.
Georgia should try fully funding the QBE Act before it makes any wholesale changes in how the state’s schools are funded. The current Georgia “solution” to the school funding crisis – reducing state per-pupil spending and forcing local boards of education to increase property taxes – is just insult added to injury.

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Column
By Kerri Testement
The Jackson Herald
February 18, 2004

Our communities need more sidewalks
I couldn’t believe I had nearly hit the new mother and her child in his stroller.
All she was doing was taking her baby for a stroll through the neighborhood. She probably just wanted to get out of the house and enjoy the pleasant evening with her child.
But the lack of sidewalks had forced her to take that stroll on city streets. And my car, like countless others, was fighting for space on the busy street that connects several neighborhoods. Pedestrians, in this case, stand to lose the fight.
It’s a sad situation when our decision not to include sidewalks in our communities is placing mothers and their children in harm’s way.
Indeed, sidewalks are one of the most neglected elements of a community. We either don’t have them or we’re too lazy to use what we’ve got.
And some experts would argue our communities are losing in more ways than one, due to the lack of sidewalks.
Former vice president Al Gore said: “Many communities have no sidewalks, and nowhere to walk to, which is bad for public safety as well as for our nation’s physical health. It has become impossible in such settings for neighbors to greet one another on the street, or for kids to walk to their own nearby schools. A gallon of gas can be used up just driving to get a gallon of milk. All of these add up to more stress for already overstressed family lives.”
What’s driving the growing interest in sidewalks is the nation’s expanding waist line and the suburban subdivision boom.
Health experts (including those at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention) claim that this generation’s lack of willingness to walk to school is one cause of childhood obesity. Other experts are saying our cardiovascular health is suffering because we don’t walk as often, compared to past generations.
When one local city council recently addressed the issue of trimming some of its plans to build sidewalks to an elementary school, one official brought up a good point.
Parents just don’t want their kids walking to school, she said. The CDC even acknowledges that less than a third of children who live within a mile of school walk to classes. (Or for that matter, a bicycle is a rare site at a local school.)
But I suspect that if local school systems really evaluated how much money in transportation costs they’d save by not sending a school bus to the front door of the kid that lives across the street from the school, there might be a policy change.
A Wisconsin school system did look at transportation costs in relation to sidewalks. The school system, which has 3,100 students, found that it could save thousands of dollars a year, if it trimmed its busing costs by asking students to use sidewalks more often.
But the fact remains that in our area, we just can’t ask every student to start walking to class — simply because there’s a lack of sidewalks.
The Jefferson and Commerce city school systems stand the best chance of encouraging more pedestrian transportation from their students. With their schools better integrated within their communities, connecting sidewalks from one subdivision to another is a more cost-effective venture.
Sidewalks need to not only connect us to schools, but to parks and other amenities that we’ll really visit.
Hoschton is probably one of the best local communities that could get its residents walking on city streets again. A new, large recreational area is nearly complete and construction is moving forward for a mixed-use project that will bring a major grocery store to the town’s center. They’re both within walking distance of existing homes and businesses.
Even so, sidewalks are one issue local governments don’t like to touch. Yes, those “smart growth” plans highlight the social and health benefits of sidewalks, but local governments see another aspect — the financial drain.
Sidewalks aren’t cheap to install and maintain. And in our litigation-happy culture, local officials are always worried about attorneys threatening lawsuits for the proverbial “tripped on the sidewalk” scenario. Some city governments already know the costs of being taken to court for faulty sidewalks.
New York City paid $53 million in fiscal year 2002 to people who slipped and fell on defective sidewalks.
The City of Houston was sued in July 2003 by the Texas Civil Rights Projects, which claimed the city’s sidewalks were “unusable and dangerous” for people in wheelchairs.
Strangely enough, my city recently asked its residents how they could improve their downtown revitalization plan.
I told them that without sidewalks to connect residents to the school, proposed parks and revitalized downtown, their efforts were pointless.
Kerri Testement is a reporter for MainStreet Newspapers, Inc. Her e-mail address is kerri@mainstreetnews.com.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
February 18, 2004

Here we go again
Jackson County Board of Commission chairman Harold Fletcher is calling a common financing matter a mismanagement of the county water and sewerage authority.
The water authority has asked the county to make the regional reservoir water payments during the slow winter months when water sales are typically slow. The water authority will refund the county for these payments in the summer when water sales pick up. This is how it was handled last year and the water authority ended up providing the funds for all of the payments.
It isn’t uncommon to handle the financial flow in the manner proposed by the water authority. But the BOC members are eager to blame water authority manager Jerry Waddell for any weakness they perceive in that department. They apparently won’t give up until they have him ousted from the position he holds.
The commissioners are also moving full speed ahead on having an outside consultant review the management of the water authority. It’s just another step in their effort to take control of the water authority. We wish they would put as much effort into running county government.


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