Jackson County Opinions...

JULY 21, 2004

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
July 21, 2004

Give The Lady Some Credit For Interest In City
The Commerce city government is faced with an interesting challenge – and opportunity: concerned citizens and CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) people who are beginning to attend every meeting.
The concerned citizens are there to find out how government works and to see if they can make it better, to address issues important to voters. The CAVE people, who exist in every city and county, have closed minds and, believing that all government is inherently wasteful and corrupt, oppose anything the government does. The “change” they think they want is to revert to “the way things were” 20 or 30 years ago, which is not possible or desirable.
It’s not always initially apparent which people fall into which group.
Maria Smallwood is the spokesperson for a loose alliance of citizens who have begun attending Commerce council meetings, where she peppers the council with questions and observations. She often interrupts council deliberations, but she is polite and not directly accusatory. She is not up to speed on how government works in general and Commerce in particular, but she is learning. She doesn’t fit the CAVE description.
If she and others like her continue to attend council meetings and talk to officials about the hows and whys of various policies and decisions, she will be an asset to the city and its residents. She will find that Commerce’s government is actually pretty good – City Hall is more professional than ever and delivers its services better and more efficiently, in spite of what a $34.5 million budget would suggest to the CAVE people.
Still, the city always has shortcomings. There are drainage, road and sewer problems. Sometimes utility cuts and potholes do not get repaired in a timely manner, city policies fail or are not followed and matters important to working men and women get put on the back burner or funds are expended on unnecessary items unimportant to voters. As an advocate for the public, once she understands more of the nuances of city government, Mrs. Smallwood can effect change just by being at council meetings. The presence of informed and caring citizens can only help the mayor and council do their job.
Everyone benefits from oversight, from the burger flipper at McDonald’s to the mayor and council. When elected officials meet month after month with virtually no citizen presence, they assume everything is going well and all citizens are satisfied, but when citizens show up to listen (and be heard), those who govern are more alert to how their decisions and policies affect the citizens.
Citizen involvement is seldom comfortable to those who govern, but a little discomfort makes for better government. Mrs. Smallwood may one day find herself asked to serve the city in some appointed position because officials will know of her interest, concern and capacity for providing good input. Or, she may opt to run for public office, at which time her involvement will make her better prepared.
Some of Mrs. Smallwood’s followers are doubtlessly CAVE people, but others are citizens who just want to be sure their voices are heard and their concerns are addressed. The CAVE people will eventually drop out; hopefully the others will stay to help city government work better for all of us.

The Commerce News
July 21
, 2004

Tough Sales Job For County School Board
The Jackson County Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools Andy Byers face a tough sell in convincing voters to impose a 2.25-mill tax on themselves through a proposed $70 million bond issue in September. County residents like to support their schools, but they’re also leery of continued property tax increases.
School officials will have to demonstrate their case: that growth is fueling such demands that even a one-percent sales tax cannot build schools and classrooms fast enough to house the kids. Most city and county officials, who deal with growth-related issues daily, understand the pressures upon the school systems, but the average citizen is more likely to be swayed by his tax bill than by complaints about growth.
The growth pressure comes at a time when state funding for schools is already forcing local school districts to raise property taxes for operations. With tax rates for operations on the verge of pushing the 20-mill ceiling, talk of another 2.25 mills for facilities sounds like adding insult to injury.
The challenge for the county school system is to make voters understand and buy into the premise that failure to build the new schools proposed in the bond issue shortchanges our children and our county. For a county that takes pride in its growth to allow the widespread housing of students in mobile classrooms would be shameful. Officials can point to a strong track record of improvement in facilities, programs and test scores as evidence that the bond proceeds will be spent wisely. Once the weakest of the three school systems in this county, the Jackson County School System now stands at the top, offering more in the way of both academic and vocational programs than the two smaller city systems.
The county board of education could have forced the debt upon the voters by utilizing a lease-purchase no-vote financing package like the county commissioners did to build the new courthouse. To its credit, the board decided to let the voters make the choice between adequate facilities and conducting school in mobile classrooms. School officials have until Sept. 21 to convince the voters to stay the course and to keep the commitment to the children.

Drivers Beware: Police Out To Enforce The Law
It goes without saying that a primary function of the police department is to enforce the law, but drivers in Commerce should be advised that the city police department is stepping up its traffic safety enforcement this summer under a program sponsored by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
The first effort came Friday night when six city police officers conducted traffic and license checks on Hospital Road and Mount Olive Road. While the stops doubtlessly inconvenienced law-abiding motorists, they also resulted in a host of citations for traffic offenses, warrants from other agencies and minor drug violations.
Law-abiding citizens should appreciate such initiatives because they get people off the roads who should not be driving or who are wanted in other areas – often both. We expect citizens to have respect for the law, but without consistent enforcement, many citizens will not. Friday’s traffic check demonstrated that too many motorists who should not be on our streets are driving without fear of being caught and without regard for public safety.
Traffic enforcement is seldom seen as being as important as more serious crime, but often it is a traffic stop that leads to the felony arrest. Even when that does not happen, getting illegal motorists off the road makes the streets safer for all of us.

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By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
July 21, 2004

Hurricane on the political horizon
If you think this week’s election was tantamount to an earthquake rumbling across our county’s political landscape, you would be right.
Earthquake. Avalanche. Landslide. Eruption.
The adjectives are almost too numerous to list. And a few are a little too racy to print in a family newspaper.
But by whatever name you describe it, Tuesday the citizens of Jackson County made their feelings about their county government known. And those in government have no where left to hide, no one left to blame except themselves.
Spanked. Whipped. Pounded. Trounced. Routed. Vanquished.
But the game isn’t over just yet. A lame-duck BOC has five months left in office, five months in which it could make mischief for those who will follow.
But even if this lame-duck board rises above its own history of mischief-making, there are enough issues looming in the next five months to keep even the most experienced politician and politically astute citizen awake at night:
• The county budget and tax rate is going to be set. Given the fact that the county ate up much of its reserves last year, and given the fact that it is quickly eating into its remaining reserves this year, a major tax hike hangs over this county like knife. The size of county government and its expenses have grown much faster than the county itself and there appears to be little incentive for our elected officials stop that pace. Their idea is to just raise taxes. Watch your wallet.
• The situation with Toyota and its plans to build a $100 million industry in Jackson County is a mess. Having spent all the county’s reserves to build a monument on Darnell Road (the courthouse), there is no money left around to build two vital roads for Toyota, roads that were supposed to have been finished in June. The truth is, the county did have the money two years ago to build those roads, but squandered it away on BOC pet political projects. Now a major industry is left hanging because of gross mismanagement by our public officials.
• To get the money for those Toyota roads, and to fund some other pet projects this BOC wants, the board wants the industrial development authority to issue economic development bonds and raise taxes to finance those projects. But in today’s unstable county political environment, the IDA can hardly afford to go along with those plans. Left in the balance are some good and worthy projects, but the public will never go along with raising taxes to fund self-serving pork projects wanted by this BOC.
• In September, the Jackson County school system will hold a $70 million bond referendum. If voters approve that issue, it will raise county school taxes by 2.25 mills. While that isn’t under the scope of the BOC, the results of that bond referendum will directly affect what happens with county government. If voters approve raising taxes 2.25 mills for new schools, they might well stage a revolt if the BOC raises its taxes to make up for mismanagement. The September school bond referendum is like a tight noose around the BOC’s hands. Or maybe its neck.
• In November, citizens will get the chance to vote on a new SPLOST sales tax. In part, that SPLOST would be used to fund payments on the new courthouse. But given the anger toward county leaders that was evident in Tuesday’s voting, citizens might well decide to kill the SPLOST as another show of defiance. If that happens, and it could, county leaders would have little choice but to walk away from the courthouse lease deal and return to their current facilities. The ACCG owns the building; Jackson County is just a tenant. The state supreme court ruled that the county has the right to walk away from the lease every year. That would be a difficult decision, but financially, there might be no choice but to do that, or put in place a massive tax increase. Take a hike, or tax hike — a tough decision.
• If the county government continues to spend money as it has in the past couple of years, the county may well have to borrow money to meet its payroll before the end of 2004. If that happens, the loan would have to be paid back by Dec. 31 from tax funds collected for 2005. That means the new board that takes over Jan. 1, 2005, would start the year in the hole.

It’s a mess. All of it.
And while Jackson County citizens spoke loud and clear Tuesday, the use of adjectives is far from over.
A storm is on the horizon.
A political earthquake may have shaken things up in Jackson County, but a financial hurricane is now headed our way.
And every taxpayer in the county today stands unprotected in its path.
Exposed. Unsheltered. Bare. Naked.

Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Jackson Herald
July 21
, 2004

Now it’s time to translate mandate into change
Tuesday’s election was a historic moment in Jackson County. Never before have the citizens of this community spoken with such a strong and united voice as they did this week.
And what they said can be summarized by a slight variation of the famous line from a 1970s movie: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!”
Indeed, by a margin unheard of in politics, 84 to 16 percent, the citizens of Jackson County gave the boot to the incumbent chairman of their county government. Voters also booted out a second incumbent county commissioner and elected a third new commissioner who had previously been a target of the current political regime.
Thus the message from this election is crystal clear: When public officials abuse their office, show contempt for citizens and squander millions of dollars in taxpayer money, the citizens will show them the door.
All public officials would be wise to heed that message.
For the thousands of people angered by the leadership of the current administration, Tuesday’s vote results will no doubt be a measure of satisfaction — that those ousted in the election got what was coming to them.
But elections aren’t just acts of political retribution. While it may feel good for a while to finally have a chance to speak at the ballot box, political retribution by itself can’t govern.

So now comes the hardest part: Finding a way to steer Jackson County off a financial iceberg and to rebuild the public’s confidence in our local leadership.
That task today in Jackson County is daunting. The county faces a looming financial crisis the likes of which has never been seen here before. Add to that the urgent need to reassure Toyota officials that their plans to build a $100 million industry here isn’t a mistake and to get them two roads which were supposed to have already been built. And there is a pressing need for a new jail, a matter which will have to be dealt with soon.
But those are just the problems at the top of a large pile. Taken together, the current situation in county government has created the biggest crisis this community has faced in decades. It will take wisdom, patience and more than a few tough decisions to turn the county government around.
That’s why it’s important for all of us to view Tuesday’s overwhelming results as something larger than just political payback. Those results should also be seen as an overwhelming mandate to change the size, scope, focus and direction of county government.
Although we’re optimistic that a change in county leadership can accomplish that goal, it won’t be an easy or quick task.
But if those elected to the BOC will continue to listen to feedback from citizens and work to keep the public informed, the overwhelming mandate which carries them into office can be translated into concrete actions for change.

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