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OPINION PAGE - JULY 28, 1999 - JEFFERSON, GEORGIA



Column
Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald - July 28, 1999

SPLOST
vote looms
Within the coming weeks, county leaders will have to pin down exactly how the ballot will be worded in November's vote for a special local option sales tax. Several proposals have been floated about how the funds should be split. The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has said it would allocate 20 percent of the money toward a new courthouse, but the other 80 percent is still up in the air.
But there is a worry that no matter how the money is split, county voters will again turn down the sales tax. Last year, voters killed the tax, which had previously gone toward road, water and recreation projects in the county.
The killing of the sales tax wasn't a vote against roads, water and recreation - most citizens view those as worthy projects to support. That vote was, more than anything else, a rejection of county leadership.
Many voters are angry at the county government and cite rising property taxes as their main complaint. Although voters are often powerless to stop increased property taxes, they can, and often do, vote against sales taxes.
The SPLOST, however, is the wrong target for voter wrath. With the development of the new Tanger Outlet Center near Commerce and the likelihood of additional commercial growth in the coming five years, much of the SPLOST would be paid by out-of-county residents who shop in Jackson County.
The truth is, many Jackson County shoppers are going to pay a SPLOST no matter what the outcome of November's vote. Everytime a Jackson County resident buys something in another county, he is probably paying a SPLOST tax to that county. And given that Jackson County's location is between several other major shopping areas, a lot of dollars flow out of the county to other communities.
So it really doesn't make any economic sense to turn down a SPLOST. But try telling that to angry voters who look for any way possible to send a message to their county government.
Why are voters angry? They are angry about the problems in the tax assessors office and the perception that the county's property tax system is unfair. They are angry that no one has run a water line down their road yet. They are angry that the county's recreation programs are often haphazardly run. They are angry at the courts which seem to be a revolving door for criminals. And they are angry at rising property taxes.
But the real anger is at what many consider a lack of leadership in Jackson County. Citizens sense no direction from their elected officials. If anything, the bitter infighting that has come to be a part of the county government in recent years has made them even more suspicious of the decision-making from our elected officials.
That's a valid complaint. No leader has really articulated a vision for Jackson County or addressed openly the many concerns bubbling up from the citizenry at-large.
But the blame for that failure of leadership rests only partly on the shoulders of those who now occupy our top elected positions. The truth is, we are using a horse-and-buggy county government in a turbo-jet world. Our system is not just breaking, it is broken. The structure of our government is inefficient, unwieldy and often incomprehensible. County leaders are so busy fighting day-to-day fires that there is little time left to put their arms around the larger issues that are so important to county voters.
And that is the second important issue on the ballot in November - a chance to change our county government into a structure that can better deal with the issues we face. Paramount in that change is a move to a professional, county manager form of government.
But even a better government structure won't get us very far if it's hands are tied by the defeat of the SPLOST vote. Without that source of funding, even a new government won't be able to pave roads or lay more water lines or build more recreation facilities. Without a SPLOST, even a professional county manager can't build a new courthouse or provide additional fire protection.
Anyone who reads this space on a regular basis knows I'm no great fan of how our county has been run in recent years. No one wants to see that system changed any more than I do.
But even a new form of government can't move forward without the tools to make those strides. One of those tools is a reasonable SPLOST that can be used to address some of the county's most pressing infrastructure needs.
So if you're angry at the county government, vote in November to change it. But at least give the new government a chance by approving the SPLOST. Without it, even professional leaders can do little more than watch the problems grow.

Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.
EMAIL: MikeB21081@aol.com.



Editorial
The Jackson Herald
July 28, 1999

County did right
on condemnation
In a dramatic move last week, the county government condemned a waste water facility that had just been purchased by Water Wise, a private waste water firm. The county's move halts that company's effort to get a state waste water treatment permit for the facility and the condemnation powers that come with such a permit.
While we support the privatization of government functions where possible, sewerage services is one that should remain firmly under local government control. Consequently, we support the move by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners and the county water and sewerage authority in acting boldly to protect the interests of all citizens in Jackson County.
We have concerns both short and long-term about Water Wise's efforts to get into the sewerage business. For one thing, the firm's leaders have misrepresented themselves in several meetings, claiming, for example, a deal with the county school system that really doesn't exist. Good business people don't misrepresent their client list.
Then last week came the scheme with Pendergrass. Although the company says it will build a sewerage treatment facility in the town, we think all it really wanted was the city council's signature on a bond so it could get a state permit for the Texfi mill water treatment facility. Unless the Pendergrass City Council forces everyone in that town to abandon their septic tanks and pay $2,400 to hook onto a sewerage system, we see little potential customer base to support such a venture. Putting sewerage in Pendergrass just doesn't make good business sense.
Compounding the deal with Pendergrass was lack of objective legal scrutiny it received. The same law firm, Tolbert & Elrod, represents both Water Wise and the Pendergrass City Council. When a public agency signs such a major deal, it should have objective legal advice and not allow such an obvious conflict of interest. On top of that problem, two members of the council also had business or personal conflicts of interest with Water Wise, but neither abstained from supporting the move.
But even more profound than the Pendergrass shell game are the long-term implications of having a private firm deciding where to put sewerage lines in Jackson County. Although county leaders have for several years contemplated moving into the sewerage business, it was always considered for industrial and commercial developments along the I-85 corridor.
But having a private company with such powers could be a disaster for county planning. When a sewer line goes down a road, it changes the nature of the property on that road. It allows higher density residential projects and additional commercial and industrial development.
In short, a private company providing sewerage service in Jackson County makes moot local zoning and land use planning. The county's future development would, to a large extent, rest in the hands of one firm, a firm that would not have to take into account the larger interests of the county or its citizens.
We don't take lightly any government action that takes property away from private citizens or businesses. When such an action is taken, it should be because the larger community interests are paramount.
We believe last week's move by the county government does meet such a standard. All available evidence suggests that Water Wise massaged the political process to further the firm's own narrow interests with little regard for the interests of Jackson County citizens.
County leaders are to be applauded for acting decisively to stop such moves.



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