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Staff Editorials

Jasper needs public spaces

By Dan Pool
Editor

    It was on one of the fairly pleasant evenings we’ve had recently that I noticed the young couple sitting on the bench under the oaks in front of the courthouse as I was leaving work.
    They could have been waiting for their attorney for some late court business or they could have been waiting on some friend before going to a nearby restaurant.
    Or, maybe they were just hanging out, but this is a stretch and also why they caught my attention: No one ever just idles along Main Street. Occasionally, you see out-of-towners stop and a take a few pictures of the Old Jail or check out the Oglethorpe Monument.
    But you never spot anyone reading a book or eating a sandwich or just sitting in any public space in Jasper, GA. It would truly be shocking if you came along the far end of Main and saw someone had put down a blanket to enjoy a picnic at the water fountain park. Incidentally, the fountains may not please many artistically, but that sliver of space with the adjoining brick area and gazebo connecting to the historical area with the cabin and Old Jail is very nice.
    Now parents with kids and walkers do make solid use of the town’s duck pond area off Pioneer Road, and serious fitness walkers and joggers navigate the trails and sidewalks all over town.
    But most of these people are not out for socialization; they are not looking to engage in conversation with their fellow townspeople.
    Perhaps the spaces we have are not inviting. Certainly the courthouse lawn is a little too open for someone to throw a blanket and stretch out on it without making a public display.
    Seeing the solitary young couple reminded me of a quote that I read somewhere, but Google could not turn up again, that we will never have another revolution in this country as there is no where for the people to gather.
    The first American Revolution was fomented and discussed by people in taverns and on the streets in Boston. Many of the European cities and early American towns had public squares where people congregated to talk politics, commerce and gossip. Some towns even had small speaker stages where freedom of speech was heartily encouraged. Universities still have this.
    But in Jasper and Pickens County where do you go if you just want to socialize with neighbors and hear the latest opinions on issues like the tax increase or Trump v. Hillary. Walmart’s parking lot? Facebook?
    There are neither taverns nor public squares here where you can see your neighbors. And from all appearances, this feature is now extinct in most small towns.
    One contributing factor is clearly the housing patterns. Spread out subdivisions throughout suburban and rural America create a lifestyle of driving home, away from public areas at the end of the day and, to be honest, that is a very comfortable lifestyle.
    In this case, if they built it  [more attractive public spaces] would people come? Probably not, is my guess. The limited sidewalks here have never had an issue with overcrowding, though in all fairness the duck pond is crowded many days.
    But still, when the city is addressing their new transportation ideas we’d encourage them to include a few public spaces, and who knows someone might sit down on a bench one day and start a conversation.
    We don’t want another revolution,  just the opportunity to socialize.   

Property tax increase too much to bear

    We’d like to pose a question to our county’s elected leaders and government department heads: What do you think has happened to the average American’s income over the past decade?
    As county officials are slated to put their seal of approval on an astronomical 13.8 percent millage increase for 2016, (yes that’s 2016 as in the money’s already spent. 2017’s budget process will start in October) we believe they are unaware of how the private sector is faring.
    We’d bet they would say wages have risen –  it’s the only way we can see that they would regularly offer government workers raises. But they’d be wrong. According to Pew Research, from 2000 to 2014, middle-income households saw a loss of four percent in their incomes annually. Sadly though, according to Pew,  lower-income households - of which there are many in Pickens County - saw their median income fall by nine percent from 2000 to 2014. The US Census on Tuesday said in 2015 Americans real median household income finally saw an increase by 5.2 percent between 2014-15. The median household income in the U.S. in 2015 was $56,516, up from 2014’s $53,718. Adding almost 14 percent to a budget that’s being funded by folks who’ve had drops in their income over more than a decade doesn’t sit well with anyone.
    Even if the department heads and county commissioners can present completely valid reasons for their spending (as in jailers making only $29,000 a year), this large increase is just too much to swallow in one gulp.
    First off, the county’s whole budgeting process needs to be brought under control. There is little accountability when they set a millage rate in September to fund money already spent. The county is setting a millage rate now and the taxes due by December will go to fund a budget they’ve already spent through their yearly addiction to the Tax Anticipation Notes they take early every year and spend before the taxes are collected. The horse is already out of the barn every year when we gather to gripe about taxes. Then a month later the county officials set budgets after the anger has subsided.
    County department heads have the option each year of increasing their employees’ salaries by zero, 2.5 percent or 5 percent - elected officials can give whatever raises they want. At least they can ask for the increase. Commission Chair Rob Jones, who never seems to want the buck to stop with him, and Commissioners Becky Denney and Jerry Barnes are the only three votes that really count when approving the millage. Elected officials may ask for additional money, but they sure can be told no by commissioners
      Go to a local bank or Walgreens and ask how much they have increased their employees’ salaries over the past few years.
    When the economy slowed earlier this decade, private business cut salaries and benefits as there was no other way to keep the doors open. But government pay raises did not slow down a similar amount. It would appear based on the salary study, our county employees are generally fairly compensated. Nobody is getting rich there - but no one is getting rich working in garages, landscaping or raising chickens either.
    Back to our original point, we’d like to reiterate:  most Americans in the private sector haven’t been getting raises over the past decade. American firms in small towns are just now expanding and if the economy keeps rolling, hopefully we’ll all see raises.
    Unlike with county jobs, regular employees know you can exceed expectations every day but if your company doesn’t turn a profit, you’ll likely not see a pay bump. We have no doubt most county employees work hard and are truly public servants, but unfortunately, the county’s economy isn’t turning a profit - yet. When we see a rise in all our boats, then we should talk raises for our government workers, but not before.   

Compassion. What does it look like to you?

    James Forbes, in a Ted Talk, discussed what compassion meant to his family of 10 growing up in the South. The talk is titled ‘Compassion at the dinner table.’ Google it. It’s worth your time.
    In the talk, Forbes laid out an old Southern family ritual from his North Carolina childhood. Every night at the dinner table when something significant had happened to any one of them (with 10 children you can imagine something was always going on) - everyone took five or 10 minutes to “make over” that person. That is, according to Forbes, the family made a fuss over the one who had been honored. “For when one is honored, all are honored.”
    During these family dinners where they learned to show compassion and support to each other, they also had to report on the people they had helped over the past week. Forbes said family dinners meant telling about the ones in their extended family or those sick and elderly neighbors they visited during the past week. According to his mother, “To be family is to care and share and to look out for one another.” They learned these things through the actions of visiting and being with each other, showing support, throughout the week.
    So every evening at the dinner table, Forbes was taught an essential lesson, perhaps without even recognizing it - compassion. Compassion for the people you live with, compassion for those in your family and community, and compassion for the elderly.
    All large religious traditions hold fast to the tenent of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” a.k.a. the Golden Rule. The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Popular self-help books and research aimed at helping us be more joyful, often tout that the way to achieve it may not lie within yourself, but in your relationships at the dinner table (like the Forbes’ family) and interactions with others.
    A major component of compassion is giving back - being supportive when someone you know gets a promotion or is named Student of the Week. Compassionate people act on their kindness - with their words and actions - whether it be through volunteering or by being there to listen when someone needs you.
    “Compassion is a piece of vocabulary that could change us if we truly let it sink into the standards to which we hold ourselves and others, both in our private and in our civic spaces,” says journalist Krista Tippett who hosts the show On Being.
    Compassion can express itself through just being there, just showing up. Compassion is visible. When we see it, we recognize it and it changes the way we think about what is doable, what is possible.
    Compassion is the local husband and his wife who, a few months ago, took in a child whose family was living homeless in our community (yes, Pickens County has homeless people). They took her into their home, provided her with food and shelter and care. It seemed horrible at first, from the outside, to see her taken away from her family. But today, she is thriving thanks to a roof under which she gets a full night’s sleep, dentist visits to fill numerous cavities that went unchecked for years, and tutoring that is catching her up in school. That is compassion expressed in a very real way.
    Compassion is every volunteer who walks in the door at the local animal shelter to spend time with a helpless animal who needs love and kindness. Compassion is CARES and the Talking Rock Baptist church that both give out food no questions asked. Compassion is the Good Samaritan volunteer who stays later than she is scheduled in order to help make sure that patient has someone to sit with while they wait. Compassion is the many teachers in our community who are unsung heroes to so many children who need a  role model to look up to.
    So while compassion may be described by Merriam-Webster as “a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.,” these people define compassion for us.

Bad Apple

    Apple Inc. apparently didn’t get the memo: There are only two certainties in life – death and taxes.
    Or perhaps as one of the world’s most recognized, and profitable, corporations, neither death nor taxes are that certain for them, or other large companies.
    For those not following business news, Apple has been ordered to pay $14.5 billion in back taxes to Ireland by the European Union.   
    That amount, they say, represents the  taxes the tech giant should have paid over the past decade.
    Among the finer points that may have been missed, Apple didn’t do any chicanery to avoid the taxes. They cut a legitimate deal with Ireland, which has tremendously benefited the Emerald’s Isle’s economy and given a ridiculous boost to their employment and income averages. The deal has clearly benefited Ireland, but at the expense of countries that might have collected the taxes.
    The Europe Union’s regulation enforcer said that Apple’s deals with the Irish government allowed the technology giant to pay virtually nothing on its European business in some years. Apple paid an effective corporate tax rate of 1% in 2003 and just .005% in 2014.
    The deal allowed Apple to create Apple Operations International, a company that does not legally exist anywhere. Apple has said they will eventually get around to paying taxes from that company, possibly to the U.S., but only if the tax rates here are changed.
    And, yes, someone can rightly point out that Apple already pays a lot of taxes, but look at the proportion compared to what they make. They freely enjoy the protections that our nation and European nations enforce to maintain their profits. If an Asian company blatantly copied all Apple products and services, who would be called upon to enforce their copyright protections?
    The amount they are being asked to pay back ($14.5 billion), while seemingly staggering to regular folks, is a mere drop in the bucket for Apple, which, according to The New York Times, has a total cash pile of more than $230 billion.
    Unfortunately, Apple isn’t the only large corporation double dipping in Ireland. American firms are increasingly clever at finding ways to pay (or not pay) taxes in other countries. Facebook and Google (along with Apple) have saved about $8 billion in recent years through their deals in foreign lands.
    Stopping this shell game of finance is incidentally a point both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump generally agree.
    According to visualeconomics.com the amount not paid by Apple, Facebook and Google could pay for the federal government’s entire share of the children’s health insurance program, which covers about 4 million kids; fund the salaries of nearly 200,000 elementary school teachers, buy a year’s worth of groceries for 770,416 families of four.
    The average American, according to visual economics, takes home about $37,000 after taxes, but if we paid our taxes like Apple does – paying a .7% rate would save us about $3,575 each year.         What reeks of unfairness is the avenues that big companies and some unpatriotic individuals awash in cash find to not pay taxes, thus shifting the burden to all us Main Street operations that lack the schemes.
    A small landscaper can’t very well claim he’s not ready to declare whether his crew actually owns equipment in Pickens or Gilmer so he’ll hold off on paying his taxes.
    And could you imagine the response of the IRS if an individual said his weekly paychecks really go into a holding company in the Caribbean (another prominent place to park wealth) so he’s not going to pony up his share for defense spending this year?
    Come on. We love our iPhones and iPads but we regular Americans have to pay taxes. And the largest portion of Apple’s business comes from the U.S. It’s not fair that Ireland is willing to cut a sweetheart deal, to help an American company avoid paying their fair share.
    Maybe this election year will really strengthen the spines of some candidates to put a stop to this perk given to the biggest companies at the expense of the rest of us.

Nutrition Roulette

By Christie Pool
Staff writer
    I can’t take it anymore.
    There was a day not so long ago when fat made you fat and eating carbs would prevent you from losing weight. Now, fatty avocados are great for us, containing a “good” fat that we need, and a no-carb diet prevents you from losing weight.
    What? That’s not what we were told last year - or even last week.
    Nutrition is a maze. One day we hear coffee is bad for us then we hear it’s loaded with essential antioxidants and beneficial nutrients. And eggs? They used to have too much cholesterol and caused heart disease.  Now we’re told a whole egg is a nutritional powerhouse filled with all kinds of things we need to be healthy, and that all that nutrition comes in an inexpensive 77 calories. Why wouldn’t we eat them every day?
    Nutrition is confusing and, to be completely honest, exhausting. We all want to do the best for our bodies but the information filtering down to us - whether it be from WebMd or Khloe Kardashian - is ever changing. Khloe’s sister Kim leaves out all sugar and carbs but eats meat and dairy, while Khloe won’t touch dairy or red meat. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live in a world without cheese, so I’ll have to ax Khloe’s philosophy from my list of potential diets.
    Nutrition science and the food industry have been changing their minds about what Americans should eat for years. Low fat, no fat, low carb, high protein - and the likes of Dr. Oz doesn’t help. While he seemingly has good intentions, Dr. Oz. - just like a 24-hour news show - has a lot of time to fill on his television show. While his audience looks to him for advice on everything from supplements to diet trends, the content he presents is often contradictory. One day he may tell us we’ll lose weight and be healthy if we take certain supplements (think green tea  and caffeine supplements) then the next day tout the necessity of even more supplements like Forskolin, raspberry ketones and Yakon syrup, which he says is a “metabolism game-changer.”
    Really? By the end of a week filled with his shows, we'd all be throwing down a handful of supplements each day  expecting a miracle in a bottle.
    Personally, I think it would just be easier - and more fun - to eat a bowl of Cap’n Crunch every night. I mean, the box says it’s filled with nutrients.
    Every day someone comes out with something  new - we can lose weight by eating rice cakes or we can be healthier eating an all kale diet. We get our information from media outlets who need a fun and exciting new story every day - or, ahem, weekly - to grab attention. Let’s face it, “Eat your fruits and veggies” isn’t as exciting as, “Blueberries new superfood.” The word ‘superfood’ is a good one for the age we are living in - a potential quick fix always gets our attention. We hear ‘superfood’ and think, “If I can eat that one thing every day I’ll live forever.”             But guess what? That won’t happen, just like a high protein, low carb, low fat diet won’t make us happy or immune to Alzheimer’s and a few supplements won’t magically burn away fat.
    Personally, I think I’ll just go back to author Michael Pollan’s advice from a decade ago: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
    Basically his premise is: Eat the stuff you find on the outside of your grocery aisles, eat nothing whose ingredient list is longer than Pinocchio’s nose after a day of fibbing, and certainly don’t ever eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
    And maybe a small bowl of ice cream every now and then. Vanilla, of course.