Friday, September 28, 2007

Affordable Housing (not)

According to Blake Aued’s coverage of the “affordable housing” conference held recently at UGA:

“Because homeowners are better organized and more vocal than renters or prospective residents, they disproportionately influence elected officials, said Russell James, a UGA professor of housing and consumer economics.

The result is policies meant to encourage expensive housing by mandating minimum lot or house sizes, requiring amenities like brick facades and granite countertops, and discouraging multifamily developments and manufactured houses, James said. Those policies can add 10 percent to the price of a house, he said.

The main benefit is it prevents poor people from entering your community, he said. It has the added benefit of forcing existing poor people to leave your community."

You don't say. Isn’t this precisely the point that I have been making for years (see under the heading Affordable Housing). Our local ordinances and land use policies serve to actively discourage the construction of affordable housing – and then we complain about the conspicuous lack thereof.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the solutions posited locally are exactly the wrong ones. Again quoting from Blake’s story:

“Instead, [Athens Mayor] Davison said she hopes to use HUD grants to start an affordable housing trust fund administered by a nonprofit foundation. That idea is more in line with some of the other housing officials and academics at the one-day conference, who advocated land trusts, mixed-use development and requiring developers to set aside affordable units.”

So instead of modifying the ordinances to remove the inhibitions that currently mitigate against lower- and middle- income folks living here (such as the virtual exclusion of manufactured housing from the county, the limit of one house per ten acres in the AR zones, the definition of family ordinance, the repeated removal of projected sewer lines from the Service Delivery Plan, etc.), we will get more of what the Unified Government specializes in: more bureaucratic hoops through which to jump, more special interest activists dictated policy, and more government mandates. You know, the kinds of things that created the lack of affordable housing in the first place.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

CCSD Accreditation

Said Benjamin Price in his article concerning accreditation of the Clarke County School District (CCSD) by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS):

“The SACS committee is a non-governmental accreditation body that accredits public and private high schools and colleges in 11 southern states. While each of Clarke County's schools has received individual accreditation in the past, this is the first year the school district has taken the extra step of districtwide accreditation.

If approved in December, all of Clarke County's public schools will be automatically re-accredited by SACS for the next five years.”

I do not really enjoy raining on the CCSD's parade and I actually pay it a compliment from time to time, but some points come immediately to mind about this “districtwide” accreditation.

The first is that districtwide accreditation appears to be in lieu of the accreditation of individuals schools, not in addition to it (though perhaps I am misreading the article - but if so, districtwide accreditation would serve no purpose).

The second is that, as noted above, SACS accreditation is nothing new. A check of the web pages for each of the CCSD’s schools reveals that all thirteen elementary schools claim current accreditation by both the SACS and the Georgia Accrediting Commission (GAC), three of five middle schools or programs claim SACS accreditation, with none mentioning GAC, and three of four high schools or programs stating that they are accredited by SACS, of which two also claim “Georgia” accreditation.

In the Guided Self Study (see page 8 of the PDF), required for SACS accreditation, the CCSD says: “For decades, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) has accredited individual schools in Clarke County, and all schools in Clarke County have been accredited since the school district began its association with SACS.”

Just what this means is open to interpretation. Are all of the CCSD’s schools currently accredited? If that is the case, why do not their respective web sites so indicate? Or does the statement mean that all of the CCSD’s schools have been accredited at some point in the past? Or does it means something else?

Regardless, why the change from accrediting individual schools to a districtwide accreditation? The answer may be entirely innocuous – something along the lines of an accreditation of the district as a whole being more efficient and easier to accomplish that accrediting each school separately. On the other hand, given the fact that the CCSD’s middle and high schools have consistently underperformed with regard to test scores, AYP measurements, graduation rates, etc., perhaps the thought was to not risk individual schools failing the accreditation process. After all, a time-honored bureaucratic tactic, when faced with embarrassing statistics, is to simply change the manner in which the numbers are computed. Yes, that is a cynical approach to take, but the CCSD has earned some cynicism.

The third point is, quite frankly, so what? As noted above, the majority of the CCSD’s schools have been accredited for years - and have been consistently under-performing for just as long. So, how will re-accreditation, either as individual schools or as a district, improve students' academic performance?

I have reviewed the CCSD’s news release and read through the SACS Exit Report and the CCSD Guided Self Study to which it links. The specific things that determine if a school system is actually doing what a school system should are discussed in only the vaguest of terms. You know, those mundane, bothersome things like test scores, graduation rates, etc. Instead, there is page after page of administrative jargon and lists of who was on this or that committee, all sprinkled with politically correct buzzwords and flowcharts.

From my time at Aderhold Hall, I can say from personal experience that the educational establishment consistently emphasizes administrative form over academic performance; I wound not be the least bit surprised if that were the case here.

For what it is worth, see this article on how the educational system in Scotland keeps claiming success, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sound familiar?

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Friday, September 21, 2007

On the Charter

I know that I am a broken record on this point, but so be it. This admittedly rambling post ties together a variety of things sharing a common theme, namely that the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County has, for the better part of two decades, conspicuously ignored the provisions and implications of its own Charter.

According to Ben Emanuel’s article in the current issue of Flagpole:

“Ahead-of-schedule construction of a small portion of the Sandy Creek line is being discussed now because a private developer has said he’s willing to pay for it. Typical ACC policy is to accept such offers to build infrastructure that’s already in its plans. At last week’s meeting, however, some commissioners and Mayor Davison expressed doubts about following through with the service delivery plan insofar as running a sewer line northward along Sandy Creek.”

In other words, the folks who live in the formerly unincorporated areas of the county are about to get screwed – again.

Grady Cornish writes in a letter to the Banner-Herald’s editor:

”The time has come to bring about the equity promised” at the time of city-county unification.

He is entirely correct and his comment brings to mind something someone wrote as a comment over at Jmac’s a while back (at least that is where I think it was – I can’t find the exact comment at the moment) concerning the provision of basic services to the peripheral areas of the county:

“Not because of the story that is told that it was supposedly promised in the unification charter, because it wasn't. That's just lore.”

I’m sure that the reference was to me, as I am the one who has been making that argument, and I beg to differ – emphatically so. Various sections of the Charter are obvious and unambiguous in their implications for extending government services into the formerly unincorporated areas of the county. Of specific note are:

Section 8-115. Provision of services.
When determining services to be provided, the unified government shall always attempt:
(1) To efficiently allocate resources to increase the quality of life for all citizens of Athens-Clarke County;
(2) To provide the highest quality services to all citizens of Athens-Clarke County;
(3) To ensure efficient utilization of community resources;
(4) To promote equity for all citizens in the delivery of governmental services throughout Athens-Clarke County; and
(5) To recognize and consider the advantages of the provision of services through contractual arrangements with other governments and private enterprises.

Section 9-103. Provision of services during transition.
In order to unify the two (2) governments and to assure the common and continued administration of services currently provided by both the City of Athens and Clarke County, the following procedures shall apply:
(1) On the effective date of the new unified government, all services currently provided by the county shall be provided through the general services area to all residents of the county and all services provided by the city shall be provided through the urban services area to the current residents of the City of Athens. Assuming the continued availability of state and federal funds, these service arrangements shall apply until modified as provided under the provisions cited below;
(2) Within one (1) year of the completion of the rate study provided for in this paragraph, the unified government shall adopt a uniform residential rate for water and sewer services throughout Athens-Clarke County. During the first six (6) months after the effective date of this Charter a rate study shall be made, and the equalization of water and sewer rates shall be completed within one (1) year of the completion of the rate study;
(3) Within four (4) years of the effective date of this Charter the unified government shall adopt a service delivery plan that includes, but is not limited to, the following:
(A) A capital improvements plan to provide water and sewer services to all residents of the county;
(B) An administrative mechanism with appropriate status and adequate budget to develop and implement a comprehensive program of human and economic development. The program shall be responsible for identifying problems and needs that exist in the community and for identifying and securing resources needed to effectively address these problems and needs. The program shall encourage efforts to enable, empower and involve the disadvantaged; address the causes of crime; work to enhance the quality of life of all citizens; and to help ensure that the unified government will be responsive to the needs of all citizens;
(C) An administrative mechanism with appropriate status and adequate budget to develop and implement adequate parks and recreation programs that will be available to all citizens of Athens-Clarke County;
(4) The unified government shall work with due speed to equalize the charges for all services throughout the county.

I contend that “all” means just that, the residents of the euphemistically named general services district just as much as the residents of in-town neighborhoods such as Five Points or Cobbham.

Once city-county unification became an established fact, however, the rules began to change. For about the first decade under the Unified Government, residents of the general services district were treated with what amounted to benign neglect. Some improvements have been made in terms of running water lines along a (precious) few main roads (after the Unified Government had been threatened with legal action) and the outlying areas of the county did get Fire Stations 8 and 9, but it took until now to accomplish that goal (the open house for Station 9 is this coming Sunday) – how many years after the new Stations 3 and 4 were built in areas that already had fire protection? And that has been about it.

It is important to note that even these improvements necessitated the imposition of additional taxes in the form of never-ending SPLOSTs, currently in their third iteration. Given the staggering amount of money we have blown on the Greenway, the Murmur trestle, the skate park, etc., it is shameful that large areas of the county still do not enjoy the basic services set forth in the Charter.

As indicated above, the Public Utilities Department drafted its original Service Delivery Plan in 1995. This plan was supposed to be updated every five years. Instead, the update of the Plan slated for 2000 was postponed until 2004. At that time, the Commission deleted more than 35 miles of sanitary sewer lines originally projected for the peripheral areas of the county, mainly in the Shoals Creek area. And, as noted above, that service delivery plan, designed to extend water and sanitary sewer lines out into the county is about to take another hit.

Which brings me to another point. In a recent story on the reactions of local politicians to the Glenn Tax, Blake Aued wrote:

“Athens-Clarke Mayor Heidi Davison quickly countered [Carnesville Mayor] Little, drawing applause for saying she won't be satisfied with providing only basic services. Athenians demand amenities like parks and a revamped Baxter Street from elected leaders, she said.

‘I don't want my citizens reduced to a medium level of service because you don't want to pay your property taxes,’ Davison said.”

As I responded over on Jason Winder’s blog (and this is not meant as a slap at Heidi):

“This will be great news for we thousands of folks who live in the formerly unincorporated areas of the county and who still, nearly two decades after city-county unification, do not get the fore mentioned minimum level of services (and are not going to get them in the foreseeable future).

Despite paying the same millage rate as the folks in Five Points and Cobbham (just to pick on them again), being subject to the same capricious property tax reassessments year after year, paying the stormwater utility fee (despite not being connected to the county’s sewer system or living anywhere near a stormwater drain), etc., we might as well live in Oglethorpe County insofar as the provision of basic governmental services is concerned.”

When it comes to deriving revenue from us, the Unified Government regards we AR zone folks as being just as much a part of Clarke County as anyone else. When it comes to delivering the basic governmental services promised to us in the past is concerned, however, a very different standard applies.

And while we are at it, let’s consider these other provisions of the Charter that no one in local government ever wants to talk about: (straight out of my campaign platform of last year):

The Commission should consider a reduction in the property tax millage rate in the general services district as permitted in Part I, Section 1-105. This reduction would serve to partially compensate residents in the district for the increasingly restrictive zoning, dramatically increased stream buffers, and continuing absence of basic governmental services in the peripheral areas of the county. Any such millage rate reduction would be compensatory only. I realize that the limited extensions of basic services into the formerly unincorporated areas of the county do not currently rely on property taxes.

The Commission should convene the Overview Commission every five years. The Overview Commission was originally convened every four years as per Part I, Section 8-116 (i.e. in 1995 and 1999), but this schedule was changed to every ten years in 2001. I feel that convening the Overview Commission only once per decade is insufficient to effectively monitor the performance of county government.

The Commission should transfer control of Ben Epps Airport to the Clarke County Airport Authority as per Part II, Chapter 4, Section 23. The Authority passed a formal resolution requesting the Unified Government transfer control of the airport to it in 2000. In 2002, the Authority reaffirmed the resolution and submitted a proposed management agreement to the Unified Government. To date, no action has been taken on either.

Any takers?

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Impertinent Observations

I’ve reviewed sections 5-3-94 through 5-3-125 of the Unified Government’s ordinances concerning its Drought/Water Shortage Management Plan and Water Conservation. I see nothing in the ordinances indicating that they apply to those who are not connected to the county’s Public Utilities water system. In fact, the “Purpose and Intent” section of Article 6 and the “Application” section of Article 7 would seem to limit any restrictions to those who get their water from the public system. This may be one of the few instances where residents of the formerly unincorporated area of the county get a break (though, of course, I am not advocating wasting water).

Continuing an issue from a while back (and later picked up on over at Peach Pundit), see this article about the apparent failure of commuter rail in Nashville.

Finally, my SCHS Indians play Dublin tonight as they try to run their record to 4-0.

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Make Mine a Double

I find myself in complete agreement with Andy Herod concerning the ridiculousness of Georgia’s current legal drinking age and with David Lynn concerning the desirability of lessening the distance restrictions barring serving alcohol near schools and churches.*

I just wish this apparent rejection of paternalism would extend to other areas of local government. Be that as it may, my agreement on such issues may come as a surprise to all those who claimed that I was too conservative, perish the thought, to serve on the Commission. It should not, though, as I went to great lengths to articulate a consistent philosophy of limited government. It was just much easier for many of Athens’ politicos to write me off simply for being a Republican in the bluest of blue counties rather then deal with my arguments in a rational manner.

For what it is worth, Herod, Lynn, Kelly Girtz, and Elton Dodson, and to a somewhat lesser extent Heidi Davison, constitute the group of commissioners from whom I can expect to receive a response when I advise the Mayor and Commission of my thoughts on any given issue – not that we always agree (but on some issues we can and do). What is interesting is that this group is pretty much at the opposite end of the political spectrum from me, which reinforces my belief that local issues are difficult to pigeonhole on a partisan basis and that employing a authoritarian-libertarian ideological spectrum in politics is much more useful that a left-right one.

*I am glad that the article exposed Georgia’s drinking age as a function of the extortion employed by the federal government concerning the withholding of highway funds, unless the various states did the fed’s bidding, that is.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

What to Make of This - If Anything?

Who would have thought it, right here in our fair city, and only a few days before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks?

About a week ago, a person in my office pointed out a
movie synopsis in Flagpole. The film, “The Mightiest Lie Ever Sold,” was scheduled to be shown at the Athens Regional Library on 05 September, complete with a “question and answer session with members of the Muslims of the Americas.”

I looked up both the film and the organization, arriving at the same
place. Quite apart from the specific subject matter of the film, i.e. "Investigating the truth and exposing the myths surrounding the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and the 9/11 tragedy," I explored the MOA site, followed the links I found there, and sought out what others had to say about Imam Galini, MOA, IQOU, and Al-Fuqra.

What I found did not make me happy.
Readers are advised to do the same for themselves and draw their own conclusions. For the Anti-Defamation League’s take on these matters, click here.

At that time, I found no mention of the film on the Athens Regional Library System’s
web site, so I do not think that it sponsored the presentation as part of its ongoing series. I assume that MOA reserved a room to show its movie, just like any other organization could do.

I want to be very clear - and emphatically so - that I am not alleging impropriety on the part of the library or its staff in any way. Nor am I advocating censorship; I am wary in the extreme of government censorship at all levels and do not favor barring groups such as MOA from the public square.

In fact, I think that the best way to debunk such views is to expose them to the light of public scrutiny.
I must admit, though, that this one caused me to do a double take.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

SCHS Indians

And now for something completely different: the Stephens County Indians, my high school football team from long ago and far away, is up to number four in the AJC’s Class AAA rankings. So far this season, Stephens County has posted wins over Seneca, SC (34-20) and AAAA Habersham Central (31-28). Go Indians.

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Here Comes the Judge

The four finalists for Clarke County’s new state court judge position will speak at the September meeting of the Clarke County Republican Committee. The meeting takes place at 6:00 p.m. this evening at the Holiday Inn on Broad Street.

Governor Perdue will select from among these four, nominated by the state's Judicial Nominating Committee, sometime later this year:

Patricia Barron (magistrate court judge)
Ed Brumby (public defender)
Phillip Griffeth (attorney)
Ethelyn Simpson (former municipal court judge)

The meeting is free and open to the public.

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Charter School in Clarke County?

At this evening’s agenda setting meeting, the Clarke County Board of Education will consider instituting a “Career Academy Charter School.” As anyone who keeps up with local educational issues knows, I am a frequent critic of the Board and the Clarke County School District concerning their financial practices and the low academic performance of the District’s students.

Nonetheless, I am cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a charter school here in Athens. As always, though, the devil will be in the details of how such a school would be structured and operated.

Items 4 and 5 under New Business deal with the application for the school and a related grant application. According to the agenda, information about the application itself should be available tonight, with information about the grant application available a week hence.

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