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Staff Editorials

The changing relationship of kids and bikes

    Last week a staff member saw two boys, maybe 11 years old, riding their bikes alone on Refuge Road near Roper Park. Not too long ago it would have seemed ridiculous to ask if allowing this would be considered neglect on the parents’ part because kids rode around by themselves all the time - but in today’s world an unsupervised child on a bicycle is something you rarely see. 
    According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 1969 about half of all students walked or bicycled to school, and 88 percent of students who lived one mile from school walked or biked. Today fewer than 15 percent of school trips are made those ways; one-quarter are made on a school bus and over half in private automobiles. And we’re willing to bet the percentage of kids who bike or walk to school in Pickens is less than 5 percent.
    In his book Manhood For Amateurs Michael Chabon laments the loss of what he calls the “Wilderness of Childhood,” a place where kids rode bikes all the time. He describes his own childhood as a “freedom that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible,” then talks about the irony of teaching his own daughter to ride her bike.
    “Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it,” Chabon writes, “nowhere that I was willing to let her go.”
    He then describes wandering around the neighborhood with his daughter at “that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood,” and not encountering a single other child.    
    “Even if I do send [my kids] out, will there be anyone to play with?” he asks.
    We would argue that today’s 11-year-old is genetically no different from an 11-year-old raised in the 70s, and that today’s kid has the ability to do the same things as the kid raised 30 years ago. So what’s changed?
    David Darlington, author of the Bicycle article “Why Johnny Can’t Ride,” says modern parents are worried about two things: traffic dangers and abductions. He also says broad cultural changes have made an impact.
     “There's a difference today, it seems, between recreation and transportation,” Darlington told an NPR reporter.  “A lot of kids still ride bikes, but they kind of do it with their parents on the weekend for fun. The idea of actually using a bicycle to get somewhere is alien to them.”
    Darlington cites kids spending more time in front of screens over outdoor play as well as suburban sprawl - today’s schools are bigger and are built further from the center of town.
    We’re excited to hear about the Department of Transportation program called Federal Safe Routes to School that encourages communities to make walking and bicycling to school a safe and routine activity again by providing funding for things like safer street crossings.
    But the truth is most of Pickens just isn’t conducive to kids riding bikes to school. The thought of an 11-year-old bicycling on Highway 53 West to get to class is definitely frightening, and much of Pickens’ landscape is so hilly it would be too difficult to ride on (even for most adults).  
    But what about Jasper where the two boys were spotted last week? The addition of a few sidewalks – say a sidewalk from downtown to Ingles and from downtown to Roper Park - would connect the city to other high traffic areas and encourage more walking and biking.
    It’s a crime that a kid living in the city limits doesn’t have a safe sidewalk to the county park.  
    (We realize the city has said it will use SPLOST monies for sidewalk improvements and we hope they come to fruition. We also know about the state’s plan to revamp Highway 53 East from downtown to Highway 515, but the project has been pushed back so many times we’re not counting on it anytime soon.)
    Just like Chabon it makes us sad to think about the freedoms we had that our children don’t - and while not sure if we’d let our own kids do it, knowing those two boys were able to experience it on their bikes one sunny afternoon makes us smile.    

Choco-lypse and the lure of the office candy bag

    The office candy bag -- every Tuesday afternoon as we are proofing page after page of type and staring down yet another weekly deadline -- it calls our names. Just a small break in focus and we’re out of our seats heading to the front office where the stash is not-so-well hidden.
    And this time of year with Halloween just around the corner it’s always full. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, Butterfingers, Hershey’s Kisses. Sometimes even a decadent Lindor truffle will find its way into the bag.
    Periodically we’ll find the bag empty but there’s usually a back up hidden in someone’s drawer for such emergencies.
    We love chocolate. Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate with nuts and chocolate without nuts. The best, of course, is chocolate with peanut butter or caramel. You get the picture.
    We love it but we hate it too, every time we head for the bag our rational self tells us we should avoid it like a Dallas hospital. It’s not good for us, too many calories wasted on too little food. Yet that rationale doesn’t stop us.
    At our office we’ve tried threatening the chocolate purchaser, saying things like, “We  will refuse to finish this week’s paper unless you stop buying that chocolate.” At least that’s what we said in our heads. What we said out loud was more along the lines of: “We refuse to work unless there are chocolate treats in that bag at 2 p.m. every Tuesday.”
    You see the dilemma.
    From babies to newspaper workers, no one likes to have chocolate taken from them.         We could try to move the  big bag of chocolate farther away from us, out of view because when it’s within easy reach - not far from our keyboards for instance - studies show people eat an average of nine pieces of candy per day. Nine pieces! Take that Michelle Obama with your healthy-eating advocacy.
    Put the chocolate in a desk drawer (with a Master lock on it, perhaps) and that cuts consumption to an average of three pieces per day - four pieces once you’ve figured out the combination.
    Halloween generates $2.5 billion in candy sales and we’re betting our office, despite the news staff cravings, is only responsible for a fraction of that figure.
    Sure there are scientific reasons we want chocolate. When our ancestors (who didn’t have a Walgreens on every corner to procure said chocolate) didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, it was smart to eat high fat and high calorie foods. As a result, our brains now reinforce and reward this way of eating. It’s genetic that we have a need for chocolate every Tuesday afternoon. And the disappointment that is felt every time a certain member of our staff reaches for chocolate in the bag only to find three Jolly Ranchers left is felt throughout the office.
    Just the sight of chocolate can make us smile. And we’re not alone. A recent British survey found that 60 percent of women ranked chocolate as the most smile-worthy experience, edging out loved ones and other smiling people. (The top pick for men was a “Sunday roast”).
    And backed by hardcore findings like those from UC San Diego, which found adults who ate chocolate on more days a week were actually thinner  than those who ate chocolate less often, we feel justified in demanding a full chocolate bag to get us through deadlines.
    We, like Bridget Jones and the ancient Incas, crave chocolate because it tastes good, it smells good and it raises our spirits - at least long enough to finish proofing page 20A.   
    So this Halloween we’re going to chock up our chocolate cravings to genetics and not a lack of willpower. Remember, nine out of 10 people admit to loving chocolate. And the 10th lied.

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?

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.


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.