Jackson County Opinions...

MAY 26, 2004



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
May 26, 2004

Soon You’ll Pay For Water You Don’t Use
You may recall that Georgia believes that the water in streams and rivers is a resource owned by the people. That’s part of the justification for requiring withdrawal permits for water systems and wells.
That water, which originates as rain, will not be viewed in the same way when it falls on your property. Get ready to pay for water draining off your land.
Athens-Clarke is trying to meet the Clean Water Act of 1972. To do so, it must fund $5 million in stormwater improvements, which it proposes to finance with fees ranging from $36 per year to homeowners to $15,000 for businesses with large parking lots or other impervious surfaces.
We live on a hill. During hard rains, water runs down my driveway to the ditch at the street and falls into a branch of Turkey Creek, carrying with it enough topsoil that the creek runs red.
Once that water hits the creek, the state claims it. Until then, however, local government will declare that it’s my responsibility and in a few years will start charging me for it.
The Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on violations of the CWA. What the regulations will do is to force the modification of subdivision and other development regulations to implement methods to reduce the speed with which rainwater from those developments drains into streams.
In nature, rain is absorbed into the ground, which filters it and releases it slowly into streams and rivers. In developed areas, however, roof tops, parking lots and roads drain water rapidly, usually into ditches or storm sewers, which dump it into the nearest stream. That water carries with it all of the contaminants found on impervious surfaces or lawns and its volume contributes to the degradation of stream banks and channels.
The new regulations will force cities and counties – which will pass the regulations on to developers and property owners – to slow that discharge. Cities and counties will also have to develop stormwater systems, hence the charges.
The logic is sound. Development reduces water quality, but it also requires more clean water. The faster we grow, the more we have to protect our water to provide for our growing needs. Twenty years ago, it was OK to let everything run into the rivers; tomorrow it will not be OK.
Meeting the new needs will be expensive. Think taxes, assessments and a new utility you have no choice but to accept. Water is a basic but finite resource. It is not automatically clean when it comes out of the faucet and the more of us who share a watershed, the harder it is to keep clean. The law says people who live downstream have a right to water just as clean as the water we have upstream, so the law is going to make us clean it up before it leaves our city via the creek or river.
Just as we are seeing the effect of the laws of supply and demand on gasoline, so too will we see it on water one day. We’ll pay more for water that comes out of the tap and we’ll pay a fee to manage the water that leaves our property when it rains. The difference is that on the tap end, you only pay for what you use. At the property end, you pay, in a sense, for all of the rainfall that you don’t use. Make sense?


Editorial
The Commerce News
May 26, 2004

Fletcher’s Many Land Holdings Raise Concerns
It has to be troubling to voters to see that the chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners has been charged with 74 ethics violations and that another complaint is being made public. Without pre-judging the issue, the complexities of Harold Fletcher’s real estate holdings give rise to the possibility that Fletcher may have had conflicts or have conflicts of interest in matters from rezoning to road construction unbeknownst to anyone but himself.
With so many holdings under nine different corporate names, how is the public to know if and when a vote or discussion by the board of commissioners creates the potential for a conflict of interest? Even if Fletcher had listed all of the areas for which he is allegedly in violation, it would take a detective to locate all the tracts of land and determine how they relate to infrastructure and development issues with which the county constantly deals.
The same might be said for Commissioner Stacey Britt, who, like Fletcher, is in the land speculation and development business. How is the public to determine whether Britt is in conflict without knowing where he owns property or what developments he is involved in?
With its rapid growth, Jackson County is attractive to those who speculate in land and those who develop it. There is nothing wrong or immoral about either profession, but because the actions of the county government can greatly enhance the value of land, commissioners who own multiple tracts for investment purposes bear close scrutiny. The installation of water and sewer lines, the location of new roads (or even the resurfacing of existing roads), the development of airports, industrial parks and the rezoning of adjacent land can all affect the value of land.
Also alarming is Fletcher’s excuse that, in essence, he did not feel inclined to list any property in which he held equity of less than $20,000. “I might have a $1 million piece of property that I owe $900,000 on – that is not required to be reported,” he said. Really? When just a change of zoning adjacent, the construction of a road or the location of a new county facility might make that property worth $1.5 million or $2 million? The voters should be made aware of that holding so they can judge whether or not a conflict of interest exists.
There are probably few people who could hold office without the possibility of a conflict arising, but certainly in a developing county the investment real estate holdings of county commissioners ought not to be hidden from voters. Whether Fletcher’s lack of disclosure constitutes a violation of the state ethics law is something to be determined by the state ethics commission, the fact that he has scores of holdings all over the county camouflaged under a variety of legal entities should give voters pause. Certainly, full and public disclosure is in the best interest of good government.

Brown Vs. the BOE
Last week, the nation observed the 50th anniversary of Brown Vs the Topeka Board of Education, the landmark case integrating public schools.
One need but look around at the interaction among the races to see evidence of Brown’s success. Racial tensions still exist, discrimination lingers, but the integration of schools has led to the overall acceptance of races by one another. Until Congress finds a way to legislate feelings of hearts and minds, people will still harbor racial an ethnic prejudices, but the wholesale, if belated, integration of public schools has proven to be good not just for minority children, but for society as a whole.
America may never achieve a color-blind society, but Brown vs. the Board of Education was a major step in that direction.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
May 26, 2004

Crow the target of county suit
One of the most troubling aspects of the current county administration is the desire by county leaders to help their friends and hurt those perceived as “enemies.” Evidence of that has shown its ugly head several times over the last three years since the current administration took power.
But the misuse of official government power to help political supporters and hurt those opposed to government actions is a corrupting dynamic. It infects the very core of local government and spreads like a cancer. Left unchallenged, such actions make government dangerous to the very citizens it is supposed to represent.
One of the local candidates running for a seat on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners knows first-hand how abusive the current administration has become. He believes he has personally felt the wrath of the BOC and his story deserves to be told even if he weren’t running for office.
Tom Crow, who is a candidate for the District 1 BOC seat, has been on the political “hit list” of the current county administration for the last three years. Last July, he was ousted from the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority by the BOC because he had refused to fire water superintendent Jerry Waddell. (Crow was replaced by Wanda David, the embittered ex-girlfriend of Waddell.)
But Crow’s problems with this BOC predate that action. Indeed, the county came after Crow in 2002 by attempting to raise his property taxes and the taxes of several other people he had helped by taking away their conservation use status.
In mid-2002, the Jackson County Board of Tax Assessors denied Crow’s application for renewal of a conservation use status on his family’s timber land and fish farm. The county assessors argued that since people had to pay to fish at his lake, he was operating a business, not an agricultural enterprise.
Crow appealed that decision to the Board of Equalization, on which he also sits as a member. He disqualified himself from voting on his own tax status and argued in front of that board that his conservation use status, which had been in place for 10 years, should be renewed. He said that his aquaculture fish farm was a legitimate operation that qualifies for conservation use status.
The board of equalization, which is appointed by the grand jury and is thus out from control of BOC politics, agreed with Crow and overturned the assessor’s decision.
But then something very unusual happened. The county government sued Crow (and other family members who own land in and around Crow’s Lake) in December 2002 in an effort to overturn the board of equalization’s decision. The county also sued three elderly women whom Crow had helped with the conservation use status.
That is a very unusual move by the county. While it is not uncommon for citizens to take property tax matters to court to challenge a board of equalization decision, it is rare for a government to sue a citizen over such a decision.
That had happened once before, in 2001, when the county sued three other property owners whose property values had been lowered by the board of equalization. At that time, county commissioner Emil Beshara blasted the board of equalization, saying the board was lowering property values too much and that county re-assessments were being “compromised” by the equalization board.
“The board is appointed by the grand jury and they answer to nobody,” complained Beshara, who has been an advocate of consolidating power into the hands of the BOC.
Obviously, the BOC wanted to send a message to the board of equalization with those three 2001 lawsuits. When the board didn’t bend to that pressure, Crow became a convenient target 10 months later. What better way to send a message to the board of equalization than to sue one of its own members?
And one more thing: On the same day the board of equalization heard Crow’s appeal in 2002, it also heard an appeal from a close friend of county commissioner Stacey Britt. The board of equalization ruled in that property owner’s favor, as it had for Crow, but the county did not sue commissioner Britt’s friend. The juxtaposition of those two cases speaks volumes about the likely political roots of the Crow action.
Crow believes, and this pattern suggests, that he has been the target of the BOC as a political “enemy” whom the county is now harassing with a lawsuit.
This situation isn’t the only reason Crow said he decided to run for the District 1 BOC seat. But having been the target of the BOC, Crow has seen how politically intimidating this administration has become.
And if it can happen to Crow, it can happen to anyone. How many others in Jackson County have been treated unfairly by an abusive county administration?
And how far will this kind of abuse go before the decent people in Jackson County speak out and put a stop to what has become a county government dominated by personal agendas and petty vindictive acts?
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
May 26
, 2004

Not ‘getting it done’
By June 1, 2004, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is supposed to have built Concord Road, a key part of the package of incentives offered to lure the $60 million Toyota/MACI project.
Yet today, just a few days shy of that date, not a blade of grass or cup of dirt has been upturned to build Concord Road, the main access road to the Toyota plant.
Reports indicate that in a meeting earlier this week, representatives from Toyota were very upset with county officials over the lack of work on the road, and even more upset when they couldn’t get a reasonable explanation for the delay.
Well, we hate to tell Toyota officials, but the reason for the delay is rooted in local politics and is an embarrassment to all of us who care about Jackson County’s reputation as a site for industrial growth.
Regular readers will recognize that Concord Road is the proposed road BOC Chairman Harold Fletcher has derided as “the Waddell road,” telling some people that it would never be built.
Ironically, Fletcher’s campaign slogan for his re-election bid is “Getting it done.”
Well, he isn’t “getting it done” on building Concord Road.
So what is the Fletcher Administration “getting done?”
Well, Fletcher has deployed county road work to the Commerce area in a bid to win votes for his re-election campaign on that side of the county. The projects are worthy, but the timing is suspect.
And he has deployed road work to the new judicial center to create access to that building, which Fletcher believes is a monument to himself.
In short, the county has had the time, the finances and the equipment to build Concord Road, but has instead used those resources in other areas for what we believe are political purposes.
That makes us wonder: Does the Fletcher administration plan to honor its Toyota agreement and ever build Concord Road?
In the balance of that question hangs a $60 million industry which would add to the county’s tax base and provide good jobs for local citizens.
If this huge Toyota deal falls apart, the blame for that will fall directly on the shoulders of Mr. Fletcher.


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