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Staff Editorials

Open government means open discussion

As our county commissioners ponder whether or not to allow public comments during budget hearings, we would like to encourage them to be proactive and hear what people have to say before budgets are officially set. This type of open government sets a good and much needed precedent for all local governments and gives the citizens a chance for input on the front side of issues. 

Having attended school board, city council, and county commission meetings for the better part of 20 years our Progress staff can attest that with the exception of a couple of times each year when the budget - already practically set in stone - is presented, few members of the rank-and-file attend government meetings. 

And we understand why. Attending a meeting which strictly adheres to agendas where department heads present proposals that are voted on without much discussion can make regular citizens feel like fish out of water. Not only does it foster a sense of helplessness, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who wants to voice their opinion. 

While open meeting laws give the public the right to attend meetings of government, public comment is subject to limitations. For instance, the school board gives citizens, if properly approved on the agenda ahead of time, five minutes to let board members know of their concerns. Board members are not required to (and rarely) respond to anyone making comments. This leaves people feeling their thoughts have fallen on deaf ears because the board members don’t say anything besides a formal “thank you for your comments.” 

Attendees at a Jasper City Council meeting are more likely to be recognized from the floor without any prior protocol. The county’s planning commission has a sign-in at the time of the meetings for comments and typically allows ample back-and-forth. 

Allowing comments at the county’s less formal public hearings on the budget would allow commissioners to know the concerns of the citizenry.

We ask the commissioners to consider the long tradition of public debate in this country, when establishing future policies. Think of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, a meeting hall since 1742, where Samuel Adams and other famous patriots lead cries of protest against the imposition of taxes on the colonies. Those boisterous meetings led to the Boston Tea Party, which led to this country’s independence.

When parents or property owners or students attend modern meetings, they are carrying on a noble tradition of open government and should be given a chance to be heard. 

We don’t want officials besieged by a barrage of comments that don’t have any bearing on the topic at hand but government officials serve the public and the people they serve should be given an opportunity to speak in a public forum. 

Anything less would be contrary to the spirit of this nation.

 

Private industry the only way to address private property

    There seems to always be a perception that government at all levels is chomping at the bit to take away citizen rights whenever possible.
    This mis-assumption was turned on its head at a recent meeting hosted by the Jasper Merchants Association, where a handful of business owners, citizens and representatives of the merchants asked the city to do something about various unsightly sites around town.
    We would like to second the response of Jasper Mayor John Weaver who said flatly that most of what he was shown in the photographs of shabbiness is on private property and would be best  dealt with by private industry.
    The Jasper mayor, who has a long track record of getting involved in development issues, made it plain that when it comes to bringing down the mighty hand of government to force a private property owner to do something out of aesthetic concerns, he’s against it.
    In this case if your business has chipping paint, weeds growing in an unused parking lot and a pile of debris out front, Big Brother is not watching.
    And that is how it should be. The rights of private citizens to maintain their property in a manner they see fit (as long as it doesn’t affect public safety) is fundamental to our country. You can be pretty sure George Washington didn’t go to the Alexandria city council and gripe about the less attractive farmhouses near his Mt. Vernon mansion.
    Weaver did say he would pass along the concerns from the meeting to the owners but would not take any action.
    The Jasper mayor clearly recognized that private small businesses are the most effective agent of development. Eventually the commercial properties that made the portraits of shame will be bought and put back into use, especially the one in a prime spot near Ingles.
    As an example of this process, Weaver told  how one persistent real estate professional requested the city condemn the old Greystone apartments, which for many years were an unsurpassed eyesore at the busy intersection of Burnt Mountain Road and Church Street.
    The city held out, eventually the property was bought and now Walgreens stands there. Had the city gotten involved, it would have surely created a mess. If the city had outright taken the prime corner lot, the taxpayers of Jasper would have been obligated to pay the owner for it and to either perform or subsidize the demolition of the apartments and their cleanup.
    And then what? You have the city owning a great development lot. Sell it? Develop themselves? A park rather than  prime commercial potential?
    Our support of private industry solutions does not mean we are deaf to the laments of the neighbors of unsightly properties. For commercial owners, we understand that a run-down property hampers most anything you want to do next door.
    And in some cases, one unsightly area can set a bad tone for everything further down the street, a problem noted by the Greystone, which sat on a key entrance to town.
    But ultimately, it’s the owners of the dilapidated properties decision as to when and how to address it. The right of private property owners to maintain their holdings as they choose is as sacrosanct as any rights we have in this country, even to the point that it may impede commerce further down the road. Indisputably we feel the right to private property trumps the right for a favorable business atmosphere.
    Furthermore we would caution that imposing building dress codes is a slippery slope. Today you go after discarded junk in front of shops and tomorrow you see government dictating color choices or building materials. In practical and rhetorical arguments, where do you draw the line?

Ebola outbreak and U.S. national security

    It seems hard to fathom that a virus in Africa can be potentially dangerous to us here in the United States but Ebola is a real and emergent threat. Whether through the virus itself spreading to our shores  or by the collapse of established nations that allow terrorist groups a new stronghold, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is on our national security radar screens -- and for a good reason.
    More than 5,300 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola since March. To date more than 2,630 have died in the biggest Ebola outbreak on record. The virus kills 90 percent of the people it infects and its outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests, according to the World Health Organization. The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission. There is no licensed vaccine for Ebola.
    President Barack Obama last week announced the United States’ plans to expand military and medical resources to combat the outbreak, constructing Ebola treatment centers with 1,700 beds, training 500 medical workers a week and deploying some 3,000 American military personnel - including doctors - to Liberia and Senegal. The Liberian minister said on Sunday the epidemic threatens to entirely “collapse” three states - Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
    Last week the U.S. doctor who contracted the virus and was subsequently healed, Dr. Kent Brantly, testified before a senate committee that the use of our military is legitimate to stop this outbreak. He said: “If we do not do something to stop this outbreak now, it quickly could become a matter of U.S. national security - whether that means a regional war that gives terrorist groups like Boko Haram a foothold in West Africa or the spread of the disease into America.”
    Liberia was in its 11th year of peace and the Ebola epidemic is striking just as hope was returning to that devastated nation. Only around 40 percent of the country’s healthcare facilities are operational and all schools are closed.
    Most doctors agree that the risk of anyone in the United States contracting Ebola is very small - you can’t catch Ebola just by being in proximity to someone who has the virus; it is not airborne like the flu. While the World Health Organization said it expects 20,000 cases within the next nine months, a group of American scientists said the outbreak could infect hundreds of thousands of people before it is brought under control.
    With that many people infected, we could see profound political, economic and security implications. The “ripple effects” the president spoke of include economic and humanitarian disasters that pose a threat to global security if these African countries break down. Terrorist groups could use the virus as a bio-weapon. The current outbreak is occurring near an always volatile region that has seen the rise of different terrorist groups. Boko Haram operates there and is the group that abducted more than 200 girls earlier this year.
    According to the Washington Post, the U.S. has  invested tens of millions of dollars in vaccine and therapy research over the last decade. And a Department of Defense spokesman, when asked if they worried Ebola would be used as a bio-weapon, replied that “the DOD maintains research interests both for protection against intentional use and natural exposure to many diseases that can impact the health of its personnel around the world, and that concern extends to viruses, such as Ebola.”
    They should. Back in the 1970s the Soviet Union had a program called VECTOR aimed specifically at researching biotechnology and virology, which is now believed to have had people tasked with creating Ebola and Marburg (a virus similar to Ebola) biological weapons. Funding research into vaccines is a sound protective measure and while we may be doing it out of national security considerations,  a vaccine could save lives both here and abroad.
    The best way to protect the United States is to stop the outbreak in West Africa.

Pickens County needs to re-align financial timeline

    If you attended one of the meetings or read about the county tax rate increase and were left scratching your head, you were not alone. There is a good reason to be perplexed on county spending. Not so much on the should they/shouldn’t they/how dare they level, but the practical explanation doesn’t quite account for the 6.55 percent increase in property taxes imposed this year.
    Through the series of meetings and additional outside reporting by this newspaper, it became clear that nothing is simple with our county’s finances and this lack of straightforwardness leads to distrust by the citizens. It also sets up poor decision making by the commissioners and department heads; if it’s hard to decipher where everything is going, it’s hard to root out waste.
    The core problem of getting a handle on the finances of Pickens County goes to the basic timeline of when budgets and tax rates are set. In the defense of the current commissioners, this isn’t anything new.
    To explain it simply, what the commissioners just approved was a tax rate for 2014, which will (in theory) pay for what we have spent since January 1 and on through the end of the calendar year.
    The commissioners are set to open their budget workshops for 2015 this month where they will lay out the spending priorities for next year.
    County CFO Faye Harvey has likened the system to “credit card spending,” you are always borrowing ahead and paying off what was spent in the past. This malfunctioning time system is abetted by the use of county borrowing in January against what they will collect in the fall.
    Many of the critics at public hearings focused on the Tax Anticipation Notes (TAN) where the county borrows in January against future taxes. Rather than the problem itself, we see TANs more as a symptom. The TAN is annual proof that the county squandered previous surpluses and we are sitting with insufficient funds in the savings account of Pickens County. When a new year opens, it’s back to the bank.
    But even if the county had a comfortable nest egg, the underlying problem of setting budgets and tax rates almost a year apart still circumvents tight financial controls and leaves the whole system a ball of confusion on what is getting paid by which year’s taxes.
    In Pickens County finances (like many other counties) passing tax rates for what has already been spent and setting budgets for items that commissioners won’t have to impose taxes on until months later is a system ripe for overspending.
    Theoretically it should not matter when taxes are collected. A government should total up all expenses (add a little bit for cushion) and that is your tax rate.
    In reality, when you have a budgeting process almost a year divorced from tax rate approval, there is no sense of imminent impact. Commissioners and their department heads may be tempted to think, “we’ll find a way to fund this before tax time arrives.”
    Or, as happened this year, the county justifies current taxes by future spending. Some of our taxes in 2014 go to “support” needs expected in 2015. We would counter, how do you know you need this support, when the budgets are not set?
    One might praise their estimating foresight as looking ahead, but from what we saw this year it was more of a shell game – throwing out a few items we have to pay for next year (not calculate any decreases) and use it to justify higher taxes right now.
    The rationale that they needed more taxes this year to pay for stuff next year is a ploy that could go on for infinity – a county will always need something in the next year. It might also be noted that one of the items (a mapping system) isn’t required until 2020 and a related technology position might produce savings.
    The prospect of re-aligning the county operation to coordinate their tax rate schedule and budgeting schedule is not simple. There are tons of state requirements on setting a digest and tax appeals that must be handled at specified times.
    But to get through the smoke and mirrors, which leaves property owners angry and governments with too many ways to claim their hands are tied when it comes to spending cuts, we need to re-align how we do business.
   

Something must be done to stop constant Cove Road wrecks

    When a fully-loaded lumber truck overturned on Cove Road last week scattering boards all across the asphalt and causing the road to remain closed for most of the day, no one expressed any particular surprise, for a wreck at that spot is nothing unusual.
    The general sentiment was “thank goodness no one got hurt…. This time.”
    Our records don’t show any recent fatalities at the Cove, as it’s commonly known. But we regularly post notices about the road being closed while emergency crews clear wrecks on the S curves.
    The stretch of road causing all the motor vehicle grief is an extremely steep grade with sharp S-curves that, though well-marked, seems to surprise motorists approaching from the east.
    From an aesthetic point of view, it’s quite impressive to see the road snaking through the cliff above the former marble mines after after crossing Longswamp Creek (very often called Cove Creek). 
    But from a traffic, motorist point of view, it’s sheer lunacy that such a steep and narrow road serves as one of two major east-west traffic arteries for Pickens County (Hwy. 53 being the main one). Cove Road is extremely well used with both Bent Tree and Big Canoe gated communities tied to Jasper by this route.
    The road is also the only practical choice for many people as a daily commute. There are few options to detour off the route unless you are really familiar with the backroads of the county and none of those routes are efficient, winding well out of the way.
    The traffic woes of Cove Road escalate by the lack of alternatives and the fact that it is difficult to move cars, patients and, as we saw last week, lumber, out of the way to get traffic flowing again in the S-curves.
    Commissioner Billy Newton, who was lucky enough to serve as sole commissioner when multi-million dollar development deals seemed to fall out of the sky during the early 2000s, had identified doing something to address the S-curves as a top long-term project.
    He had general ideas that a dam could be put across the creek at the bottom and the road straightened by running it along the top of the dam, creating water reserves and fixing the traffic issues at the same time. Nothing came of this and obviously tackling something this large is a multi-year, phenomenally expensive scheme, unlikely to draw support now that the development wave has passed.
    When a rockslide occurred in April of 2011 and closed Cove Road for several days of cleanup, one county employee said the entire cliff was unstable and something major needed to be done. Several low concrete barriers were installed at the base that serve little apparent purpose but nothing substantial was ever planned.
    And again when a single overturned truck was able to shut down a major thoroughfare for a full day, there were calls for action. Several people opined that the road should not be used for larger truck; while others noted that some GPS and online mapping programs direct you down Cove when approaching from Dawsonville. If we could let the Google maps/Garmin folks know that unsuspecting truck drivers such stick to  Highway 53 it would be a start.
    We understand that a total reconfiguration of the S-curves is such a large, expensive and complicated project that the county, city of Jasper or  state can not just take some bulldozers and start grading. We fully realize that due to the very topography that creates hazard, addressing the Cove is a humongous challenge.
    But surely something can be done there to improve the safety -- even if it’s not a total reworking. At the very least we would like to see the need formally acknowledged on city, county and state drawing boards.