By Angela Reinhardt
If last week’s vacation had a theme it would be Roll with the punches.
We’d had it planned for months: Just me and my family goofing off on the beach for an extended weekend in Florida. But what’s that John Lennon quote? Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans?
A tinge of anxiety welled up in my stomach as the giant, sloppily organized weather system named Debby spooled up in the gulf. In an effort to look on the bright side, I maintained hope she would pack up and move out quickly. But as the week trudged on, those hopes were dashed like a dinghy on a raging sea.
Debby stalled, and forecasts for our Florida city were grim. Photos of flooded streets and downed trees paraded across news channels. My husband told me he heard a DJ say something to the effect of, “Man, what a bummer for all you folks who had a trip planned in Florida.” Then a state of emergency was declared.
Granted, thoughts of driving into the eye of a tropical storm were disconcerting, but not as frightening as the thought of being cooped up in a tiny room at the Hawaiian Inn with a four-year-old and a five-year-old for nearly a week.
Needless to say, our beach trip capsized and drowned in a soggy whirlpool of sand and palm trees. We cancelled our reservations and, after a few hours of mourning the sun and surf, I started to shift mental gears.
The night before our original departure date, my husband and I sat on the patio, cooked an incredible meal together and brainstormed. We decided to throw away any real attempt at planning and instead opted for complete spontaneity. Before we had children, we thrived on the stuff. It worked then, why couldn’t it work now?
That first day of our vacation, my husband went into work, since we were in town. So, for a little gas and a $5 entry fee, I took my children to Amicalola Falls. We packed a picnic, checked out the live snakes and stuffed critters on display in the visitor’s center and hiked all 600-plus stairs to the top of the falls and back down.
The next morning, I spent about 20 minutes packing absolute essentials - A few clothes, swimsuits, a toothbrush and toothpaste. I didn’t even pack a hair dryer or makeup, and for the first time in my life, I opted to take advantage of the complementary soap and shampoo at whatever hotel where we ended up. Then we all took off for North Georgia, with no itinerary, for a driving tour of our own backyard.
Neither my husband nor I own a Smart Phone, so we went old-school and relied on a real live paper map to get us around. We didn’t even print out directions. We followed Hwy 515 up through Blairsville by Brasstown Bald and over to Helen, where we went tubing, among other things, and spent the night in a slightly odd, but interestingly charismatic motel on the river.
Then we toured through parts of the Chattahoochee National Forest, which is absolutely stunning, and hiked, swam, and paddle boated at Vogel State Park (another whopping five bucks for entry). Later it was over to Dahlonega and finally back home again.
Every day our children asked excitedly, “What are we doing today?” I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know.
For very little money, we rediscovered our own homeland and found that not only do we live in a place of incredible beauty, but that being spontaneous on vacation, even with young children and a sweltering heat wave to manage, gave us a unique sense of freedom, excitement and relaxation we had not experienced in years.
So I highly recommend letting go of your own plans sometime to make memories you didn’t even know you wanted.
The stimulus was historic in size and included funding for infrastructure projects, tax cuts, “green” projects and other areas meant to save/create jobs or stimulate the economy. A few weeks ago we published a piece on how this landmark rescue package impacted Pickens County. The original story is available here.
Pickens received about $25 million of the $840 billion that has been distributed around the country. Of that, $5.1 million went to education, $5.9 went to Small Business Administration Loans, and $6.8 went to North Georgia Community Action to weatherize homes or prevent eviction or foreclosure. The rest went to low-income housing loans, the Boys & Girls Club of North Georgia, the county government for a raised water tank, and a few other areas.
Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf recently told congress, “Our position is that [the stimulus] created higher [production] and employment than would have occurred without it."
We agree but only to a small degree.
While researching the local impact, we found the stimulus did plenty of good: saving nearly 30 jobs in the local school system; creating some jobs through small business start-ups that received SBA loans; employing local contractors through weatherization programs, among other things. But our research also showed that while the government is capable of creating these jobs, it isn’t very efficient about doing it, and it didn’t create many here. All of the red tape associated with the federal money also made it difficult to make a quick impact, and the stimulus fell short of creating a long-term, sustainable job market.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unemployment here recently peaked in January 2010 at 11.3 percent and fell into the 9 percent range through October of 2010. After October 2010, unemployment again rose above 10 percent, and it wasn’t until the end of last year that it fell below nine percent. To offer some perspective, unemployment in Pickens County fell below two percent in the late 1990s and quickly rose from around three to four percent in 2007 to over 10 percent in 2009. In that short two-year period of time, nearly 2,000 jobs were lost here. Yes, there were jobs created through the stimulus, but the number of those new jobs was just a handful compared to the number of jobs lost, and many of the new ones are already gone.
For example, take the positions created through the North Georgia Community Action organization (just over 30 in the 10-county region served), which were temporary and quickly disappeared with the weatherization program. Then look at the school system. While there were employees retained with stimulus dollars, the system still faces the same massive state budget cuts, and the stimulus money has now disappeared. They are now looking at a huge increase in health insurance costs for school employees and have said drastic steps to weather these costs are now under consideration.
Barring the school system, we also think it took too long for stimulus money to have any effect. Take, for example, the water tank on Whorley Crossroads, the county’s “shovel-ready” project that practically drowned in red tape. County water director Larry Coleman said the county could have applied for other projects through the stimulus, “but we had to jump through so many hoops for that money it wasn’t worth it,” he said. It took months and several amended applications before work could begin.
Instead of these shovel-ready projects, why couldn’t the federal government implement something similar to the Work Project Administration, the agency created under the New Deal. Instead of workers having to be already employed by a company, this model put unemployed and unskilled people to work for eight years on public works projects in nearly every community.
We like the fact homes were weatherized here, that people avoided foreclosure and that a handful of people got or retained a job. We aren’t opposed to stimulus packages as a way to help the economy, but the largest stimulus package in history fell short of its potential.
By Dan Pool, editor
Last week I had the opportunity to be one of them – a tourist, a visitor, one of those people visiting North Georgia; those whose thoughts and feelings are endlessly speculated upon by business owners and event planners.
It provided a unique perspective to roll into Pickens County on two wheels as part of the 33rd BRAG ride along with 1,100 other cyclists plus their families. It was also interesting to keep my ears open without immediately divulging my hometown and to hear what others thought of our area.
Here are some thoughts and observations.
First, no one had anything bad to say about Pickens County other than one woman who went on a rant in front of another Jasper rider about how “you locals must think it’s funny to watch people from the flatlands try to ride up our hills.” Truth be told, it is funny, but the locals don’t plan the routes, BRAG personnel do.
Aside from topography, there were no negative comments on Jasper that I heard. Even the infamous Blue Building in downtown that creates such acrimony here apparently didn’t merit any mention among those passing through that day. Maybe we’re a little over-sensitive to it here, as we see it every day.
Trying to be unbiased, I would rate Jasper as having the most picturesque downtown of the other stops on the ride, which included Dalton, Fort Oglethorpe, Winder, Roswell and Mt. Airy.
The City of Jasper should be commended for its efforts along Main Street. No other town had anything to match the streetscape, marble monument and trees on our Main Street. Even the rock garden water park, another downtown landmark that frequently draws criticism, makes an interesting point that provides some character to our town.
However, it must also be noted Jasper ranked last in terms of street life, as in hustle and bustle, dining and shopping. Obviously Roswell and Dalton boast considerably bigger populations. But even at Mt. Airy, there were more restaurants, shops and stores to visit in the nearby downtowns of Cornelia and Clarkesville.
And get this: several restaurants in Dalton said they had opened up especially for BRAG as it hit town on a Sunday night, and they normally would not have been open.
Around Winder, it was striking to see the number of (apparently) new and large industrial/commercial areas. Whatever they are doing there, our economic development people should maybe pay attention.
Conversely, along the ride on most days, there were large empty subdivisions with locked gates at the front and no houses on the curb-guttered and landscaped streets beyond. Pickens is certainly not alone in having seen large scale residential plans utterly flop.
From my undercover experience as a tourist here, I can say that this community can be proud of the image Jasper/Pickens presents to those passing through. There is always a fear that people may not like your hometown, especially when it is a smaller one. But have no worries. We stack up well.
That said, it is also clear Pickens remains near the back of the pack in terms of downtown commerce. The idea the recession alone is the cause for commercial lethargy along Main is maybe not the whole answer. Clearly we lack something. Finding what we lack is something community leaders might address by looking first at why surrounding areas manage to attract a larger share of the limited commerce and growth still occurring.
A side of fries that took three potatoes to make, burritos as girthy as your forearm, and burgers so big you could dislocate your jaw.
The recipe for overeating really is quite simple: All you need is a heap of cheap food and gigantic portions mixed with relentless advertising campaigns and round-the-clock availability. In America, we have all the ingredients to cook up a nation full of porksters.
In early June, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a ban on the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 oz. for New York restaurants, arenas and movie theaters to combat the explosion of obesity in America.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 32 percent of Americans are obese, with 42 percent expected to be obese by 2030.
When we first heard about Bloomberg’s proposal, our knee-jerk reaction was much like the rest of the country; we scoffed at the seeming futility of such a fizz-brained, draconian proposition. But after mulling it over, we’ve changed our mind.
No, we don’t think Bloomberg’s policy will drastically change the obesity rate in New York, but we think it will make an impact. We think the new restriction, if passed, will send a positive message that could change eating habits.
In an MSNBC interview, Bloomberg cites the “bottomless” bowl of soup study performed by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More.
“You tend to eat all the food in the container in front of you,” Bloomberg said in the interview. “We are forcing you to understand you are making a conscious decision to go from one cup to another cup.”
In the study, Wansink created bowls that could be filled by hidden tubes and compared the eating habits of people with the normal bowl and those with a bottomless bowl. People with the normal bowl ate 9 oz. of soup while those with a bottomless bowl ate 15 oz, but the bottomless bowl group reported that they were no more full than the other group.
"Most of us have too much chaos going on in our lives to consciously focus on every bite we eat, and then ask ourselves if we're full,” Wansink said. “The secret is to change your environment so it works for you rather than against you.”
For example, in a Center for Disease Control growth chart of fast food portion sizes since the 1950s, the average soda has grown nearly six times in volume. The average portion for a hamburger and fries has tripled, and now Americans weigh, on average, 26 pounds more than our 1950s counterparts.
One of the main complaints we’ve heard about Bloomberg’s policy is that America is a free country, and “I don’t want anyone telling me what I can do.” But in this case New York residents aren’t being denied 64 oz. of highly-sugared soda. If that’s what they really want, they just have to get another cup if they are in a restaurant.
Like Wansink suggested, Bloomberg is trying to change the environment to increase New Yorkers’ chances for success in their health and wellness goals. In our mind, the only ones who might suffer from this policy are the soft drink companies. But soft drink companies are concerned with increasing consumption of their products, not the health of the public.
Let’s not sugar coat it, we’re fat and we’re getting fatter. Critics of Bloomberg’s proposition, including the New York Times editorial board, say the mayor should focus his energies on programs that educate people and encourage them to make better choices. But if education about overeating really worked, shouldn’t the nation’s obesity rate have been going down and not up over the past decade when studies on obesity starting making front page news on a monthly basis?
Like Bloomberg said, the policy is not perfect, but we think the nation’s meal portions (and waistlines) are overdue for a downsizing.
A week ago we reported the salaries of all offices up for election, our response to questions posed by an informal group after a recent Tea Party meeting.
There are obviously a lot of different opinions on how much someone should be paid for a job they are elected to do. What follows are a few thoughts about that. Some are our own. Others are repeated here from opinions we heard voiced at the Tea Party gathering.
Unlike the private sector (where we assume everyone can negotiate their best price), in government, officials get paid with tax dollars, which creates a different set of expectations.
Something to keep in mind, even in a sole commissioner county, is that the top man cannot just approve himself a raise whenever he feels like it. Salaries of those elected to county office are set according to state guidelines. Admittedly, there have been plenty of scandals across the nation when officials found avenues to advance their pay unofficially and unscrupulously.
Some of the politically interested citizens at the Tea Party meeting felt a fair salary for a “public servant” should be based on the average income of the area to be served. In other words, if the average local income is somewhere in the $30,000’s, that’s about what the commissioner should make.
This would certainly seem fair to the community and might bring out candidates with public service uppermost in their minds. But we question whether such pay would be truly fair to ones sure to suffer the public slings and arrows saved for candidates running for office. We also ask what effect this pay system might have on the quality of candidates.
If we were to apply the average income method locally, we would find our officials are paid about twice too much, with the commissioner and sheriff paid nearly $70,000 each, along with a very nice benefits package. Our magistrate, probate judge, tax commissioner and clerk of court all earn $50,000 to $60,000 plus benefits.
Another idea on setting salaries would be to base pay on what an average CEO of a company the size of a school system or government would make.
Our future commission chair will be responsible for an organization that employs more than 300 people and works a yearly budget of $19 million. Further, the position oversees extensive projects like the $12 million courthouse construction and is the buck-stop authority to a myriad of important duties such as fire protection, youth recreation and keeping water pressure in county water lines.
Conversely, those who make their living from government are not sitting up nights to worry about how they’ll make payroll this week or about how to tell someone with years of experience they have been laid-off.
Still, if we use this CEO business model, then our officials here aren’t paid half enough.
It’s laughable to hear politicians tout withholding pay raises as a mark of conservative spending. Not only has the private sector foregone pay increases in recent years, they have cut pay, benefits and jobs as a means to survive.
Finally, the Tea Party discussion indicated the $10,200 pay for newly created district commissioner posts is an odd sort-of-hybrid idea. But $10,200 is nothing to scoff at for part-time work in this economy. There are a lot of people who would welcome the chance to earn $10,200 by working maybe a couple of meetings per week and answering a few e-mails.
On the other hand, that amount is certainly not enough if pay alone is the reason we expect someone to serve effectively.
A problem encountered with several nominally paid county posts, like tax boards or the school board, is the sometimes public notion that lack of pay becomes an excuse for poor performance in office. Too many times we have heard, “Well, they ain’t really paying him, so what can you expect?” or “I wouldn’t do it for $50 a meeting.”
We’ve never heard anyone on a board or commission say this, but we have heard members of the public make this excuse for low performance among those serving. We encourage everyone to drop that line of reasoning. Before anyone accepts an appointment to a board or enters an election race, they must approach it with the aim to work to the best of their ability, not to a level dictated by part-time pay.
For district commissioners, we have a good crop of candidates. They express a desire to govern in new posts, like it’s an honor and a duty they take seriously. Regardless of the pay, let’s be sure we hold them to that standard – full time.