Jackson County Opinions...

JUNE 9, 2004



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
June 9, 2004

Housing Proposed On Prime Commercial Sites
The city of Commerce is being asked to annex more than 475 acres upon which developers plan to build multi-family housing in what is regarded as a prime industrial and commercial location.
One of the tract is the former Hill property across Interstate 85 on Ridgeway Church Road. The new owners have approached the city about a development mixing commercial property with single-family houses and approximately 300 units of apartments or townhouses on 233 acres and an R-4 zoning. Under R-4 zoning, one can construct 900-square-foot houses on half-acre lots.
The other is adjacent, the former Gordon-Campbell tract, where on 244 acres the new owners propose to build some industrial spec buildings and a lot of townhouse apartments.
None of the details are etched in concrete. Both groups must file statements of regional impact with the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center in Athens ruling on the impact.
Commerce has long coveted these two parcels for two reasons. First, they bring the potential for industrial and commercial growth into the city; second, they provide an avenue through which the Tanger II factory outlet center could be annexed.
The assumption has always been that the property would be developed as industrial and commercial – which Commerce needs – not residential, in particular multi-family, which it cannot afford.
The city has turned back a number of annexation requests for R-2 zoning on the grounds that such developments add little to the city’s tax digest while they greatly increase the cost of city services, particularly the schools. Commerce Superintendent of Schools Larry White has estimated that it takes a house valued at more than $200,000 to generate the taxes needed to pay for a single child in the city school system. It doesn’t take a degree in math to realize that few residential developments “pay their way” for educating the children that will live in them, and we’ve been reading for more than a year of the financial challenge our school system faces between student population growth and state funding reductions.
What’s worse is this property is all in the “shared tax district,” which means that most of the taxes from the property will go to the Jackson County School System, increasing the ill-effects to the city.
The owners of the Hill property are all politically connected and friends of the city, so there is a desire to accommodate them if possible. Should the city give them what they seek, however, it will open the flood gates to the similar development of the rest of that corridor, which would be disastrous.
Commerce’s tax digest is weighted too heavily residential. The city is addressing that by investing about $2 million to get utility services out Progress Road to the new Bana Road industrial site. That could pay huge dividends in years to come, but it is going to take a lot of industry to keep school tax rates from going out the roof, even without the annexation of property for new housing.
There is a tremendous pressure on Commerce to grow. The planning commission is trying to ensure that we get growth that is beneficial – or at least less harmful. Wish it luck because it’ll need it. We’ll all need it.


Editorial
The Commerce News
June 9, 2004

Political ‘Victories’ Show Need To Remove Rascals From Office
It’s been a big week for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. First, it got rid of Jerry Waddell from the county water and sewerage authority and, second, it won the legal challenge regarding the financing of the new courthouse.
Those two events may warrant toasts of champagne among the commissioners, but few taxpayers will feel motivated to join the celebration.
While county residents may be apathetic about who operates the water and sewerage authority, the fact that he’s being paid nearly $100,000 to depart will rightly be seen as an outrage. Citizens should be enraged at this use of the public’s money.
First, if Waddell deserved to be fired, the board of commissioners need have waited but one month before its three new appointees could join the authority and fire the subject of the commissioners’ obsession without paying one red cent of taxpayers’ money. Second, the desire to remove him immediately suggests that there are motives yet unannounced as to the timing. Could the board of commissioners be anxious to take control of the authority’s planned sewer line to the Valentine Farms property acquired by Toyota?
Chairman Harold Fletcher tried to distance the commissioners from the agreement with Waddell, saying that the BOC had no role in the negotiations. Really? According to authority member Elton Collins, it was Fletcher who initiated the proposal and who negotiated its details with Collins. With the chairman taking the initiative, Fletcher’s no-role comment comes across like, well, a bald-faced lie.
Taxpayers may be a little more sympathetic of the authority members participation as they tried to protect the interest of an employee deemed valuable, but $96,000 in public funds is a bit more than generous after three and a half years of employment. Blaming the cost on the commissioners might be accurate to a point, but the authority should have prevented the deal by refusing to negotiate in the first place or made it less odorous by settling for a one-month or two-month severance package instead of a year and a half of pay.
Because the courthouse is nearly completed, the decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia, though a disappointment, is a practical moot point. It would have been nice – and appropriate – to stop this board of commissioners and governments all over Georgia from circumventing the state constitutional requirements regarding acquiring debt only with the consent of the voters, but the new courthouse is already on Darnell Road, for better or for worse.
Voters stuck with paying for the $23 million (so far) courthouse are not likely to be mollified by the fact that the commissioners’ lease-purchase financing has been declared legal. The important thing to taxpayers is that their elected representatives totally left the public out of the process both from the siting of the facility and its financing.
The actions relating to the termination of Jerry Waddell and the financing of the courthouse are political victories that serve a handful of men at the public expense. The lack of regard for the public’s money is a shameful circumstance voters should keep in mind when they go to the polls in July and further evidence that it’s time to remove a number of rascals from office.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
June 9, 2004

Citizens fought the right fight
Despite this week’s adverse Supreme Court ruling, the Jackson County citizens who challenged the county government’s convoluted courthouse financing scheme fought the right fight.
The ruling in favor of the board of commissioners was not unexpected, given that this citizens’ group was fighting against some of the state’s most powerful political forces, namely the powerful lawyer bond community which is reaping millions of dollars off government debt deals. If you don’t think political pressure influences the judicial system, think again. This is a textbook case where politics trumped justice. The written decision was intellectually shallow and ignored many of the key elements of the case — ignored because had the court faced those issues, it would not have been able to rule in favor of the powerful bond lawyers and others with a strong self-interest at stake.
Although the court ruled that the county’s lease-purchase financing scheme was legal, that doesn’t make it right. Most citizens will continue to believe that they should have the right to vote on large debt projects done by their local governments.
Just remember, decades ago, the courts also ruled that segregation and Jim Crow laws were legal. It took years of abuse for the courts to finally reverse those laws and to begin the process of ending what had been “legal” segregation.
So just because a court makes a ruling doesn’t mean that ruling was ethically or morally correct. Sometime in the future, another court will reverse this decision. But it will take years of abuse by local governments and an outcry by more citizens to overcome the influence of the insider political forces which want to bypass voters and finance large government projects without a vote.
But as a practical matter, the court ruling changes little for Jackson County citizens. The courthouse is built and no matter what the legal outcome, we’re stuck with paying for that huge building.
But the core issue in this controversy is larger than just the legal issue. The truth is, the BOC pursued a course of action to avoid public input every step of the way in building a new courthouse. The court ruling is no vindication of that record.
A quick review:
• The court ruling does not vindicate the BOC in how it selected a courthouse site. The BOC did not allow any public input in where a new courthouse would be located in Jackson County. Indeed, the BOC made the decision to purchase land on Darnell Road in secret. The site required major infrastructure upgrades (road access) that cost taxpayers millions of extra dollars.
• The court ruling does not vindicate the size or scope of the courthouse project.The BOC did not allow any public input into what a new courthouse would contain. The facility being built will only hold courtrooms and offices related to judicial officials. No administrative offices will be housed on Darnell Road in this new $25 million building. Many citizens don’t know that and they don’t know that millions of dollars will also have to be spent to build space for those offices.
• The court ruling does not vindicate the political tone of the financing. The BOC could have allowed citizens to vote on the financing, but made a deliberate decision not to. In fact, they chose the most expensive method of financing — a bond referendum would have had lower interest rates.
I’ve seen a lot of governments come and go in Jackson County over the years. I’ve covered a lot of controversies and controversial officials. But I’ve never seen anything like the current BOC. I’ve never seen a government that was more arrogant or abusive of the citizens. And it’s not just the courthouse issue.
It’s also the water authority mess.
It’s also the self-serving real estate interest of some BOC members.
It’s also the GBI and ethics cases involving BOC members.
It’s also the mishandling of the huge Toyota project.
It’s also the explosion in county taxes and wasteful spending by county officials.
But it’s the attitude, arrogance and willingness to trample on citizens that I find most appalling.
No doubt, members of the BOC will be crowing in the next few days about the court ruling, claiming to have been vindicated and absolved of how they handled that project. In their minds, the courts have vindicated their entire administration.
But they are wrong. The citizens who challenged them may have lost the legal fight, but they won the moral high ground by fighting back.
Yes, the citizens’ group, and indeed we as taxpayers, lost that narrow legal battle. But the fight against an abusive and politically corrupt leadership will continue unabated.
And on July 20, it will be the citizens of Jackson County who, at the ballot box, will pass the final judgement on this administration’s record.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
June 9
, 2004

Waddell deal stinks
When all else fails, spend taxpayer money. That seems to be the ruling philosophy of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners after last week’s move to pay Jerry Waddell $96,000 to leave as county water superintendent.
For three years, the BOC has been attempting to wrest control of the water authority and get rid of Waddell. All those efforts failed, until last week when, with a political gun at his head, Waddell was convinced to take a settlement rather than face being fired July 1 by a new, BOC-controlled water authority.
We don’t blame Waddell for getting out while the getting was good. He really had little choice. Staying around and forcing the BOC to fire him might have been a noble act of self-sacrifice, but noble acts don’t pay the bills.
Still, the deal stinks. Taxpayers ought to be outraged that our money is being used to settle a political score. As water authority member Elton Collins said, there are no winners in the deal.
Indeed, there was no legitimate reason for the BOC to want Waddell fired in the first place. It was all petty politics and personal vendettas. On many occasions, we challenged the BOC to produce any evidence of mismanagement or wrongdoing by Waddell. But the board couldn’t show us anything because its allegations were bogus and based on politics, not performance.
If the BOC had a legitimate reason to get rid of Waddell, why didn’t the board wait until July 1 and then fire him? If the commissioners had just cause to fire Waddell, then why did they spend nearly $100,000 tax dollars to do what could have been done for free?
The real kicker to last week’s actions, however, was the blatant lie by BOC chairman Harold Fletcher when he said that the BOC wasn’t involved in the Waddell deal. In truth, it was Fletcher who masterminded and initiated the deal.
Still, what bothers us more about the Waddell fiasco than lies from the BOC chairman is that now, the Fletcher administration will have a strangle-hold on the county’s water and sewerage infrastructure.
That means that our real estate commissioners, including Fletcher, will be able to control where, when and how water and sewer lines are placed in Jackson County. And if you don’t think politicians won’t benefit from that inside knowledge and control, then you haven’t been following county politics.
We strongly believe that the county water authority should remain a quasi-independent agency that attempts to rise above political control. Decisions on infrastructure placement should be made based on good business, not insider knowledge or political favoritism.
As far as we can determine, Waddell did a good job in his role as county water superintendent. We believe that he, and the authority, attempted to keep politics out of those key infrastructure decisions.
It’s a shame that his tenure in that position will now be remembered more for the way in which he was forced out rather than for the way he did the job.


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