Jackson County Opinions...

SEPTEMBER 8, 2004



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
September 8, 2004

Let Majority Rule By Eliminating The Judiciary?
I was certainly in the minority at the Commerce Kiwanis Club last Thursday, but I was alarmed to hear the two speakers suggest that America would be better off without its judiciary system.
Promoting the “Ten Commandments Rally” Sept. 28 in Athens, the speakers repeatedly assailed judges whose rulings were unpopular with “the majority” of American citizens.
One of the court rulings was the case in which mandatory school prayer was tossed; another was the ruling that stripped Roy Moore from his position as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
In a question-answer session I asked if the speakers thought we would be better off without the judiciary.
“It would be better,” said Mike Fischer, chairman of the Northeast Georgia chapter of Ten Commandments Georgia.
If this is representative of the way conservative Christians think, this country is headed for ruin in a far different way than those who fret over the cultural wars assume. But I suspect that these men would draw the line at letting the will of the majority have absolute rule – they were not, after all, clamoring for the replacement of George W. Bush with the man who got the most votes four years ago – Al Gore. That court decision also reversed the will of the people, but not the will of the conservative Christians. That makes it OK.
For the record, Judge Moore was removed from the bench for failing to obey a court order – in other words, for breaking the law. One’s religious convictions do not place one above the law here on Earth.
What I heard Thursday was a sentiment for imposing majority rule in lieu of law. Under that system, as Judge Joe Booth pointed out to me afterwards, black Americans would still ride in the back of the bus. We have laws and courts not just to punish wrongdoers, but also to protect the rights of all citizens – including and especially those in the minority. The idea that whatever the majority wants should not be undone by law suggests that the U.S. Constitution should be scrapped. My days in American history are long gone, but I seem to recall that our earliest European settlers came fleeing the kind of religious persecution such a system would allow.
You get no argument from me that our laws are based upon the Ten Commandments, but those who believe they should be hung in every public building and school do not want them there because they are markers of appropriate behavior, but because they are reminders of the laws handed down according to Christian tradition by Jehovah and, more specifically, because they promote belief in the Christian god. Likewise, those who fret over the loss of mandatory prayer in schools are not interested in the right of the Jew or Muslim to lead a prayer; they’re mad because Christian prayer cannot be forced on everyone.
The speakers suggest that opposition to posting the Ten Commandments is an attack on Christianity. They’re wrong. Its a protection of all Americans against government-sponsored religion, which can come in many guises including school prayer and chaplaincy programs. Christians may oppose that because they’re in the majority, but they’d feel differently if Judaism or Islam were being similarly promoted.


Editorials
The Commerce News
September 8
, 2004

Group Needs Help To Keep Jackson Beautiful
“We have a tremendous challenge,” said Jack Legg, chairman of the Keep Jackson County Beautiful board of directors during the group’s certification celebration Aug. 27.
Since the focus of Keep Jackson Beautiful is the reduction of litter, it would be hard to argue with Legg’s assessment. Say what you want about the natural beauty of the area, litter is a tremendous problem all over Jackson County – and most of Georgia for that matter. Any program seeking to change people’s habits about litter will have an uphill battle.
The key to winning that battle is the successful education of the public, a process that will be both challenging and unending. For many, discarding a cigarette butt by tossing it to the ground is as natural as breathing and throwing beverage containers and fast-food wrapping out of the window is a matter of convenience. Reducing litter means changing people’s thinking and even their lifestyles, neither of which is a matter to be taken lightly.
The first step is to teach people that littering is wrong and offensive. For example, while throwing a bag of fast-food containers out of the car window or dumping an old refrigerator on a back road may seem obviously wrong and offensive, many people who have learned to live amongst trash and filth see no ethical problem with treating other public and private property similarly.
Local and state laws and ordinances are important, but changing people’s attitudes is more important. We have anti-litter laws aplenty and tons of litter along our roads, but who can remember seeing anyone arrested for littering?
This is not a job for one committee funded by county government. All responsible Jackson County residents must join the effort for it to work. That means serving as examples to our children by responsibly disposing of litter and talking to them about its proper disposal. It means using our church and civic groups in the adopt-a-road and adopt-a-stream programs, supporting recycling and waste reduction initiatives and maintaining household and business trash receptacles so material does not escape. It means encouraging our communities to regulate construction sites’ handling of wastes and keeping our own property litter-free, clean and well-maintained. It means being good stewards of our land and our resources.
Keeping Jackson County beautiful is a huge challenge. Let’s rally behind this new county program to make it happen.


New Budget A Farce
The $31 million 2005 county budget proposed by the board of commissioners last Friday is a farce. Ordered to keep the budget at a level requiring no tax increases, the staff produced and the BOC approved a budget in which key expenditures were eliminated.
Among those expenses that will occur but are not in the budget are funds for inmate housing, which will hit $400,000 this year and probably more next; $1.17 million for the courthouse debt and $400,000 for road improvements. The current commissioners hope voters will approve a sales tax referendum to take care of the courthouse and road expenses, but the budget is also worrisome in that it assumes the best in its revenue projections. The budget calls for zero in salary increases as well.
The budget was restrained so the outgoing commissioners can say they did not raise taxes, but it unrealistically achieves that goal by eliminating costs for items that must be funded. On top of that, the $2.9 million in reserves with which the commissioners started the year could well be gone.
The commissioners know that the 2005 budget is an illusion based on politics rather than fiscal reality. They’re deceiving the taxpayers in order to make next year more difficult for the new commissioners.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
September 8, 2004

SPLOST picture in a fog
The special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) vote in Jackson County that was planned for November has been postponed. And if the SPLOST was unclear before, it is now in a deep fog.
A lot of people are happy that the vote was postponed. The general consensus was that the current, discredited board of commissioners couldn’t get a SPLOST vote passed anyway.
Still, that the BOC backed away from a vote at the last minute, claiming it had run out of time to get information to the ballot printers, is odd. It is proof that either the county leaders responsible for crafting the SPLOST are incompetent, or evidence of something else going on that has not yet become general knowledge.
So now the next window for a SPLOST vote will be in March, under a new county administration. The old regime will be (mostly) gone. New, more respected faces will be on the scene. It might stand a chance of passing voter approval.
Indeed, the financial solvency of the county may be riding on the outcome of that SPLOST vote. A large part of the SPLOST will likely be designated to make the lease payments on the new courthouse. In addition, approval of a SPLOST is about the only way the county can finance a new jail, one of its most pressing needs.
But while the chances of a SPLOST passing may go up under a new administration, I’m still not clear on some of the legal fine points that surround this vote. Here are some of my questions:
1. Can a SPLOST tax be used to make lease payments for the new courthouse? By state law, SPLOST money can only be used for the acquisition or financing of capital assets — roads, buildings, water lines, etc.
But in the courthouse situation, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that the facility is not a capital asset or a debt for Jackson County, but is rather just a lease arrangement between the county and the ACCG (Association County Commissioners Georgia). In addition, state law prohibits counties from building equity in such lease deals — we make yearly lease payments, but won’t have any ownership or equity until the end of the 30-year lease.
That means that SPLOST money for the new courthouse would be used to simply make lease payments. And since the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the county can legally cancel that lease every year, those funds would not really be going toward the acquisition of a capitol asset. Is that really a legal expenditure of SPLOST funds?
The courthouse lease-purchase is a convoluted arrangement, but the question of the legal use of SPLOST funds for lease payments is important.
2. A second part to the above question is this: If SPLOST funds can be used for lease-purchase payments, can they be used for a retroactive deal? Typically, SPLOST votes are held to finance a set number of projects. If voters approve the list, the county will finance the projects and use the SPLOST money to make the payments.
In Jackson County, however, the current BOC never put the issue of a new courthouse on a ballot for voter approval. That would make a SPLOST vote for the courthouse retroactive, that is to pay for something the county has already done without voter approval.
There is a serious question being asked by some if that is really legal. How can you ask voters to approve a project that has already been done?
3. Has the county already violated the ACCG lease contract with its proposed 2005 budget? According to the lease deal with the ACCG, the county government is supposed to appropriate funds every year for those lease payments. If no funds are appropriated, then the county isn’t following the contract it signed.
Last week, the BOC presented a proposed 2005 budget. But the BOC left out any budget for the ACCG lease payments, saying that would be taken care of by a SPLOST at a later date.
Still, the BOC’s refusal to budget for the lease payments is not only bad financial management, but also may technically violate its deal with the ACCG.
If that is the case, then the new administration will have an open door to assume the lease is canceled and abandon the new courthouse on January 1, 2005.
I doubt that will happen, but if it turns out that SPLOST funds cannot be used to make lease payments on the facility, the only options would be to either raise property taxes next year to make the note payments, or abandon the building and move back into the old courthouse.
That might not make sense in the long run, but the current BOC, by fudging the 2005 budget, may have just given the new BOC a legal loophole to do just that.
And in Jackson County, you can just never tell what might happen next.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
September 8
, 2004

The budget from hell
The proposed 2005 county budget presented by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is less a financial document than it is a fictional drama. Dante’s “Inferno” comes to mind — making this a budget from hell.
The result of this administration’s directives is a budget that does not reflect the true cost of county government. That’s because the current BOC administration doesn’t really want taxpayers to know how badly it has managed the county’s finances over the past four years. Nor does this administration have the ability to set priorities and make difficult decisions.
The only good news in the proposed budget is that the BOC didn’t stick taxpayers with a huge tax increase to make up for its four years of financial mismanagement.
On the other hand, this BOC didn’t do much to cut county expenses in the 2005 budget. And it conveniently left out some major county expenses, such as the lease payments on the new courthouse, the cost of housing prisoners from the overcrowded jail, and a low estimate of the overhead costs to operate the new courthouse.
The truth is, the proposed 2005 county budget is a fiction. And while such thinking may force the numbers to balance on paper, it won’t work in the real world.
That means the incoming BOC administration will have its hands full starting January 1, 2005. It’s first order of business will be to get a picture of the county’s true financial status, hold real budget hearings, and adopt a real budget.
But doing that will undoubtedly mean slashing county expenses. We believe cutting the excessive number of high-paid county bureaucrats is a good place to start.
In addition, the new administration will have to seriously consider what should be on a planned March SPLOST vote. If it is legal, some of those funds should be used to make the lease payment on the new courthouse. In addition, we believe SPLOST funds should be designated to finance a new jail.
When this administration took office January 1, 2001, the county had over $7 million in cash reserves. When this administration leaves office at the end of this year, the county will be lucky to have $1 million in reserves left and a mountain of long-term debt.
Let’s hope that the new county administration will have better financial skills than those who now hold office.


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