Jackson County Opinions...

AUGUST 18, 2004



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
August 18, 2004

Hurricanes Are Still Striking Close To Home
I mused last week that one of the few things I miss about Florida is the excitement of a good hurricane. That grossly immature thought swept across my brain Friday morning, Aug. 13, when Charley was approaching Florida’s west coast near where I used to live.
I left the state at age 21 with the view that hurricanes were mere adventures to live through. Although Hurricane Andrew changed that notion when it demolished South Florida years later, the idea of a hurricane steaming up the west coast brought it back last week – if only briefly.
Twenty-four hours later we were trying to find out how our relatives fared. It’s hard for a major hurricane to hit Florida without running up on some of my kin. When Andrew struck in 1992, it leveled my uncle Lindley’s house in Homestead – fortunately, Uncle Lindley had sold it and moved to Placida, just below Punta Gorda by then, and he was not affected.
This time, with a Class 2 storm apparently destined for Tampa, my uncle figured what the heck, boarded up the french doors and, like the good Cracker he is, decided to ride it out. The storm then intensified to Class 4, turned right and changed my uncle’s thinking about riding out hurricanes. Fortunately, damage was limited to a demolished porch and no one was hurt, but it made for a long and exciting Friday the 13th.
My brother Jim lives in Pinellas County, much of which was evacuated (with many evacuees heading right into the path the storm eventually took). With his wife Sandy, a nurse, called in to work a shift at her hospital, they opted to stay – and had no problems at all due to Charley’s turn.
My sister Laurel and her husband Larry rode out 100+ mph winds on the other side of the state as Charley came across and passed by their Titusville house. Built up on pilings on the edge of a marsh to catch the sea breeze, it caught them in great abundance Aug. 13. The storm blew the steel off a section of their roof and caved in a section of their wrap-around screened porch, but they got things dried in by late Sunday and were coping well.
At this writing, I am still awaiting word on how my Aunt Phyllis fared in Sebring, where power could be out another week.
As a kid unencumbered by responsibility or experience, I found hurricanes to be great fun. Age and Hurricane Andrew changed that perspective. Now the first order of business is to see how the folks fared. They dodged Bonnie, escaped Charley and we’re hoping for the best with Earl.
We will read in the days to come about the aftermath of the storm. We will learn about changes in the insurance industry that made the insurance companies less liable – and homeowners more so – and how that has affected thousands of people. We’ll probably even see the disaster aid become an election-year issue because President Bush is in a position to gain votes if the relief is done well and lose them if it isn’t.
Man can’t stop, direct or even accurately predict the actions of a hurricane. You just nail down the hatches, board up the windows, head for high ground and pray that you and your loved ones miss the brunt of it.
I moved out of state, but the hurricanes still hit close to home.


Editorials
The Commerce News
August 18
, 2004

County, Cities Should Protect I-85 Corridor
The importance of the Interstate 85 corridor near Commerce has been stressed lately during the discussion of a county bond issue to finance a number of “economic development roads.” Commerce officials have been quick to declare that Bana Road, the Steven B. Tanger Boulevard extension and the Progress Road extension are all crucial to the city’s economic well-being.
And they are, because they open land along Interstate 85 for development that would boost the city’s tax digest upon which the city school system depends.
I-85 is the cornerstone of economic development for all of Jackson County. That corridor, which gives industries easy access south to Atlanta and north to Greenville and beyond, is the most desirable real estate in Jackson County. As such, it should be protected.
Braselton, Jefferson, Commerce and Jackson County all depend upon current or future development in the corridor to provide new industry and business. What is built in that corridor will greatly affect the ability of the county and its municipalities to handle the residential growth sweeping in from the Atlanta area. Commerce officials have indicated they will not allow residential development in that vital corridor. But there may be other uses of property currently permissible in commercial or industrial zones that are detrimental to or incompatible with the commercial and industrial development of the corridor.
Those governments dependent upon development of the I-85 corridor should look anew at their zoning regulations and land use plans to make sure this vital resource is protected. Among the many challenges facing a high-growth area like Jackson County is the protection of those areas suitable for the businesses and industries which will provide the financial wherewithal to build the schools, roads and libraries and to operate police, fire and other governmental services necessary to citizens in a growing county. Nowhere is this more important locally than along I-85.


Oil Prices Demonstrate U.S. Economic Weak Spot
Crude oil prices hit record levels last week. With most analysts predicting high prices for the foreseeable future, a glaring weakness in the U.S. economy is exposed: our energy policy.
While the Bush energy policy ignores the problem of American dependency upon what looks like an increasingly less reliable source of oil, the truth is that no administration since that of Jimmy Carter has understood our vulnerability to a fuel supplied largely by an unstable region of the world.
Since then, the American government, reflecting the public, has given no heed to conservation and little to alternate fuels, figuring that we could buy the oil we need in a free market. Today, China and India are competing for that oil, and the higher demand for a limited and threatened supply has gasoline prices soaring. Americans driving bigger, less efficient vehicles are finding they have less money to spend on consumer goods because they need it to fill their gas tanks. Meanwhile, the high cost of fuel ripples through the economy, reflected in higher prices for virtually everything we buy.
This is a problem that cannot be legislated away. Nor can it be solved by drilling for oil in the arctic. The long-term solution means more efficient (and smaller) vehicles, lifestyles that require fewer miles driven to work, shop and play, and an across-the-board effort at conservation.
The good news is that as the price of fuel goes up, we’ll evolve into those patterns. The bad news is it will be painful because we waited so long.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
August 18, 2004

County polarization bleeding our potential
Jackson County is a complex place. I doubt there is any other county in the state of Georgia that has the complex political entanglements that we have here in our backyard.
Think about it for a moment: Jackson County is large geographically; it has a county government with a variety of independent county agencies attached; it has nine incorporated towns; it has three separate school systems; it is part of several regional governmental groups, such as the Bear Creek Reservoir; and it is surrounded on three sides by larger communities (Athens, Gainesville and Gwinnett County), each of which exert a tremendous influence on the county’s economic and social fabric.
All of that makes for a convoluted political stew. It is difficult for there to be a sense of unity in a county as politically, economically and socially fractured as Jackson.
There is no central school system to rally behind — we have three of them.
There is no dominate large town like you find in many counties — we have nine towns all competing for attention.
There is no dominate local economic base — over half our working population travels outside the county to surrounding areas for employment and shopping is splintered in a variety of directions as well.
And there is no dominate cultural or social center around which citizens in Jackson County revolve — nothing, for example, like a college campus.
To some extent, its always been that way here. But our citizens haven’t always been as polarized as they are today.
Indeed, the polarization of Jackson County into small self-serving factions is a deep cut to our community’s political artery — the result is that we are bleeding our long-term potential.
Over the years, many factors led to this increased polarization. The rapid growth in the Braselton area, for example, has changed that side of the county in how it relates to the rest of Jackson County. Slower growth areas are sometimes jealous of Braselton’s economic expansion and see the town as a threat to the overall balance of political influence.
Indeed, growth has itself fractured the county’s traditional political systems. Newcomers often have very different views of county politics than long-time residents. The old political baggage means nothing to new residents while it may mean everything to a life-long resident.
Thus, growth has changed the county’s political dynamics and served to polarize the county in ways that most people didn’t see coming.
Yet the biggest impact on this increasing polarization was the change in the county’s government structure in 1999 which created four board of commissioner districts. By being elected only within those districts, the focus in county government over the last four years has increasingly become on individual district wants, desires and peeves. The larger view of doing what is best for the county as a whole has become subjected to narrow-minded district politics.
No where is that more evident than in the current debate over building industrial development roads in the county. Already two years behind, a large number of people want the county government to focus quickly on building the two roads near Pendergrass for a $100 Toyota plant.
But some Commerce leaders have cried foul, demanding that they get some new roads too. Like siblings arguing over which one gets a new toy, Commerce leaders have pushed county officials to not finance or build the Toyota roads unless they also get some economic development roads.
The Commerce roads are worthwhile projects, but the current standoff over the Toyota roads is an example of how the internal county political jealousies are endangering a $100 million industry that would be good for the entire county.
Rather than setting a priority and moving forward, the county is tied in knots by political polarization. The big picture has been lost amid the jockeying for political favor.
If we lose the $100 million Toyota plant, the result would be a huge black-eye for the county, including Commerce. Indeed, if we lose Toyota, there won’t be a need to build those Commerce roads for many, many years.
That is just one glaring example of how polarized our community has become under the new form of county government. That structure, electing commissioners only from within small districts, has created a dynamic that is doing more harm than good.
Because of this increasing political polarization and the rhetoric that goes along with it, Jackson County has lost the ability to work together. Doing what is right for the county as a whole has become subjected to internal fighting over petty backyard brawls. It has become impossible to set a priority because everyone perceives that their wants/needs/desires are a priority. And our political structure not only enables that thinking, but also encourages it.
Somehow, we have to find a way to bring our leadership back together in Jackson County and to discourage the sectional bickering that currently defines our politics.
Jackson County will never be as unified as some communities. Our dynamics are too complex.
But we have to have the ability to set priorities and then work through them in an organized and responsible manner.
If we don’t do that, we will not only lose good industries like Toyota, but also lose the ability to determine our own future. Outside forces will play one side against the other and use our own internal bickering for their profit and our loss.
We will still grow even as a fractured county. But our fortune could quickly turn from being able to lure good growth to being flooded by uncontrollable bad growth.
We all live in Jackson County. There are no islands here and no independent kingdoms. What hurts one hurts all.
The sooner all our leaders realize that, the quicker we can stop bleeding from our self-induced cuts and start healing the tramua of the past four years.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
August 18
, 2004

Debt driving all county decisions
If you thought the $25 million debt for a new courthouse was a lot, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In the waning months of a discredited lame-duck administration, Jackson County leaders are wanting to create a lot more debt.
The driving force behind that is the new courthouse, which in the end will likely cost county taxpayers around $35 million.
Not only is that building massive overkill in size and appearance, but it has also become the source of ongoing county expenses.
Monday night, the county board of commissioners agreed, with no public discussion, to issue $2.3 million in more debt for the courthouse. County officials reportedly declared that no old county equipment — desks, chairs, filing cabinets, computers, staplers, clocks or anything else — will be allowed in the new courthouse. Everything must be brand new.
Hence the debt this week of $2.3 million to pay for all that shiny new stuff. Heaven help us if a county employee had to use an old desk!
And all of that is on top of other out-of-pocket expenses for the courthouse building, 160-acres of land and the expensive new roads.
But a direct cost of around $35 million for the new courthouse is only part of the problem. Because of vocal opposition about how that project was done, county BOC officials became fixated on “showing” the public that they were the “boss.”
That fixation came with a high price, however. Consumed by the courthouse, county leaders dropped the ball on a number of other pressing projects.
Chief among those projects were two industrial development roads for the $100 million Toyota industry that the county agreed to build way back in 2002.
Those roads were supposed to have been finished by June 1 of this year. The county had two years to do them, but so far only a little dirt has been pushed around. All the equipment, manpower and funding was at the new courthouse.
Now county leaders are trying to get that project going, along with a half-dozen other projects that have been lingering for two years in the shadow of that massive courthouse.
But to do those projects quickly will take a lot of cash — and the BOC is broke.
Hence the move to have the county industrial development authority finance those projects. It’s a quick fix in the 11th hour to salvage the Toyota deal and to get started on other much-needed industrial development roads.
But doing that will create additional debt, somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-$20 million.
And none of that is to mention the debt we will incur in building a new jail, one of the county’s most pressing needs today.
So how much debt is too much?
That question is open to debate. Some officials believe that the county can “grow” itself out of debt as the taxbase grows in the coming years.
That is true, to an extent.
But it is also true that taxpayers can comfortably take on only so much debt at one time.
It would have been better for the county to have done these projects in smaller bites. Indeed, the current administration had three-and-one-half years to address all these issues, set priorities and work out a reasonable timeline.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, county reserve funds, manpower and focus were squandered by courthouse overspending.
Now taxpayers are being saddled with a huge amount of new debt all at once to pay for that lack of planning.


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