Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Johnny, Saxby, y Inmigración

My understanding is that passage of the Senate’s version of immigration “reform,” S. 1619, will be a three-stage process. The first, yesterday’s cloture vote, passed by a margin of 64-35. That vote limited debate to the amendments already submitted (a.k.a. the “clay pigeon”), closing the bill to additional amendments. The second part will be another cloture vote tomorrow that would send the bill to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote. The third part would be the up-or-down vote on the bill itself. Part two is the most important; if the bill gets the 60 votes needed for cloture, it is all but certain to pass the Senate by a simple majority vote. Of course, then the Senate version must be reconciled with whatever bill emerges from the House of Representatives

Today, the “clay pigeon” has been broken into its constituent amendments for the consideration of each in turn. Both of Georgia’s senators has an amendment to be taken up, Johnny Isakson’s about Home Depot day labor shelter preemption (S.A.1282) and Saxby Chambliss’ about Social Security Trust Fund “totalization” (S.A. 1318 – not that the Trust Fund actually exists in any meaningful sense).

Back in May, both Isakson and Chambliss addressed the Georgia Republican Party convention at the Gwinnett Center, and heard loud and clear that the party faithful were none too happy with the Senate bill as it then stood. A couple of weeks later they moved back toward the GOP base somewhat by modifying their support for immigration “reform” and sending a joint letter to President Bush urging a supplemental spending bill to fund beefed-up border security as a part of any consideration of the immigration issue. Both voted against yesterday’s cloture.

And on another subject, the FairTax town hall meeting scheduled for Monday, 09 July, at the Classic Center has been canceled.

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My Take On The 10th

So, the powers that be over at One Press Place endorsed Paul Broun, pretty much saying that while the good doctor may be an SOB, at least he is our SOB.

I find the charge Broun was somehow opportunistic in his campaign curious, given the fact that Charlie Norwood’s deteriorating health was well known. Broun certainly was not the only candidate to lay the groundwork for a campaign before Norwood’s death – he was just honest about it. Even the editors commented on what a rare opportunity an open seat is.

I think that Broun will give Whitehead a run for his money. In the Augusta area, on the eastern end of the district, Bill Jackson won the race for Whitehead’s former seat in the State Senate without the need for a runoff, so turnout may be down there. On the western end of the district, some Democrats in Clarke County may cast ballots for Broun, if only for the purpose of voting against Jim “no show” Whitehead. And, regardless of what is going on with the Oconee County GOP, Broun should do well there.

If the local blogosphere is any indication, many Democrats will simply stay at home, rather than choose the lesser of two evils (and there is no clear consensus as to which candidate they think that may be). FWIW, it appears that the folks over at Flagpole, the house organ for “progressive” politics in Athens, are sitting the runoff out entirely, making no mention of it or either candidate in the current issue.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Impertinent Observations

This letter to the editor concerning the local stormwater utility fee prompts a couple of musings on my part.

The first is that those who live outside the old city limits have been rooked since city-county unification. As I noted on my former campaign web site: “A decade and a half after the fact, the explicit promises of city-county government unification remain conspicuously unfulfilled for residents in the peripheral areas of the county.” See sections 8-115 and 9-103 of the Charter. For about the first decade or so after unification, residents of that area were treated with what amounted to benign neglect. Over the past few years, however, rural residents have been systematically deprived of their property rights, while at the same time being subjected to oppressive ordinances and spiraling taxes and fees. The stormwater utility charge is merely a case in point. Thousands of residents are neither connected to the county’s sanitary sewer lines nor located anywhere near a stormwater drain, but pay the fee nonetheless.

A second is that once government expands into a given area (regulations, subsidies, taxes, fees, etc.) it is there forever, regardless of how good or how poor its performance. Unification will never be undone. FWIW, I supported unification. I thought that having overlapping, though separate, city and county bureaucracies in a geographic area as small as Clarke County was insane. Unfortunately, unification has not worked out as advertised.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Commission Voting Sessions (continued)

The Planning Commission voted unanimously against requiring those citizens who want to comment on zoning items to register before Commission voting sessions (see agenda items 21 & 22, the file is a large .pdf, so it may take a while to load).

Since this change in procedure involves alteration to the county’s zoning ordinances, the Planning Commission must make a recommendation to the Commission, which it has. Of course, the former is an advisory body that the latter is free to ignore, which it doubtlessly will in this case.

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The Morning After

At present, with 96% of the vote counted, it appears that Whitehead will face Broun in a runoff.

The results speak for themselves. A bit of quick addition reveals that the three Democratic candidates in the race accounted for a combined 28.3% of the vote. Contrast that with the 32.6% Terry Holley garnered last November.

As I scan down the results, it appears that Whitehead polled the most votes in 16 counties, finished second in 3 counties, and third in 2 counties (Athens-Clarke, predictably, and Broun’s home county of Oconee).

Broun took the most votes in 4 counties, finishing second in 8 counties, third in 7 counties, and fourth in 2 counties (including Lincoln, from which Marlow hails).

Of course, James Marlow prevailed only in self-consciously “progressive” Athens-Clarke County, finished second in 9 counties, third in 9 counties and fourth in 2 counties (getting outpolled by Paschall in McDuffie and Freeman in Greene).

The striking thing is not that Whitehead did so well, after all he was the establishment choice in a heavily Republican district, but rather that Marlow did so poorly. He, too, was the establishment choice, even if unofficially, and the GOP vote was split six ways. Take Athens-Clarke County out of the figures and Marlow only got 7032 votes spread over 20 counties, significantly fewer than Whitehead received in Columbia County alone.

And why are the guys at Political Insider saying that Marlow is from Athens?

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mea Culpa

Commissioner Jordan responded privately to my post about commission voting sessions (since edited), taking me to task for implying “irresponsible and counterproductive” behavior on his part. He was entirely correct to do so.

In this instance, I allowed rhetoric to get the better of me. Over the years, I have taken great pains not to personalize the policy and procedural issues on which I comment. I pride myself on presenting rational arguments and being able to document the points that I make. I stand by my insistence that the consent agenda actually imply consent, but freely concede that the argument could (and should) have been better made without dragging personalities into it.

Commissioner Jordan and I agree on some issues and disagree on others. However, I have no doubts as to his abilities or his commitment to serving the community. He has my apologies.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Ben Epps Airport

I find the tussling between the Unified Government and the Clarke County Airport Authority interesting, though wholly unnecessary, because the issue of control of Ben Epps Airport should have been settled long ago.

In March 1988, prior to city-county unification, the General Assembly created the Clarke County Airport Authority through Act 1132 (which originated as Senate Bill 245, see Georgia Laws 1988, pages 4906-4922). This local law was incorporated verbatim as Part II Chapter 4 of the Unified Government’s Charter.

For whatever reason, no progress has been made on turning control of the airport over to the Authority since then. 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 that would transfer control of the airport to the Authority. To date, no action has been taken on either.

As Section 23 of the local law creating the Authority and its incorporation into the Charter plainly imply, the intent was to transfer control of Ben Epps Airport to the Authority. In the almost two decades since the Authority was created, why has that not happened?

And yes, I have copies of the relavent documents.

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Your Tax Dollars at Work

Readers will immediately notice that I have omitted names and many specifics from this post. Though the resulting text may read awkwardly, my intent is not to embarrass anyone, but rather to critique the competence (and in my opinion the arrogance) of the Unified Government, not of individuals. Nor I am interested in needlessly antagonizing county officials or the judiciary. However, property owners and taxpayers need to be aware of this situation. Of course, I suspect that members of the local legal community are well aware of this case (and the matter is public record in any event).

A particular property in our fair community was assessed at the fair market value of $190,236 in 2005. The next year, that assessment rose to a supposed fair market value of $361,583, an increase of 90%. Needless to say, the owner felt such a reassessment to be excessive. Upon discussion between the owner and the Tax Assessor’s office, the latter reduced the 2006 assessment to $298,406, an increase of a mere 57%. The owner found the revised assessment excessive as well and appealed to the Board of Equalization. That body heard the owner’s appeal, ruling in favor of the Board of Assessors. Still not satisfied, the owner appealed that decision to Superior Court.

Of the three cases originally scheduled for the week the owner’s appeal was to be tried, one settled and another was postponed, thus leaving the owner’s as the only case on the docket. Problems arose when the judge, owner, owner’s counsel, and 95 prospective jurors were in place, only to find the Board of Assessors represented by . . . an empty chair.

For whatever reason, the County Attorney’s office farmed the case out to “additional” counsel. The Entry of Appearance filed by that attorney indicated that he/she was serving as additional counsel to the County Attorney’s office. According to testimony given by the County Attorney’s office, it was under the impression that the “additional” counsel was, in fact, to be the sole counsel representing the Board.

Regardless, no one showed up in court to present the Board's case, even though the calendar indicating the trial date had been provided to the County Attorney’s office two months beforehand and through it to the “additional” counsel. Thus, when the trial date arrived, the Board’s counsel had neither prepared a case nor subpoenaed any witnesses. On the other hand, the owner’s counsel was ready to proceed, having prepared evidence and subpoenaed witnesses, some of whom were experts retained at the owner’s expense. Over the strong objections of the owner’s counsel, the judge granted a continuance.

A mere three days later, the judge issued a Consent Judgment agreed to by both sides, with the Board being represented by what appears to have been a second “additional” counsel, as again opposed to the County Attorney’s office. The Consent Judgment did three things:

1) Set the fair market value of the property at $190,236 for tax digest year 2006 and ordered a refund of overpayment, plus interest, for that year’s property taxes (i.e. the same assessment as for 2005)

2) Set the fair market value of the property at the same $190,236 for tax digest years 2007 and 2008 (assuming no improvements to the property)

3) Ordered the payment of $6300 for the fees and costs incurred by the owner to bring the case to trial

Notably, this amount does not include the $2375 paid to the 95 prospective jurors for their service. Neither does it include the refund and interest on 2006 property taxes mentioned above, nor does it include the potential property tax revenue lost to the county resulting from a freeze of the assessments for 2007 and 2008, which doubtlessly amount to a far greater sum.

From what I can gather, the owner’s counsel was well prepared to argue the appeal on its merits. On one hand, those preparations may not have mattered; since the county bungled the case so badly that it may have immediately agreed to the Consent Judgment without any evidence being presented in open court so as to be done with the matter. On the other hand, the county may have realized that is was destined to lose the case based on the strength of the owner’s evidence and simply thrown in the towel. Either way, the county’s taxpayers, save one, are on the financial hook for this debacle.

And yes, I have copies of the relevant documents (Civil Jury Trial Calendar, defendant counsel’s Entry of Appearance, Transcript of Proceedings, and Consent Judgment).

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Privatization Works

As taxes, fees, and spending spiral ever upward in Athens-Clarke County, note that it does not have to be this way. See this commentary in the Tampa Tribune concerning the experience of the new municipality of Sandy Springs. They obviously know something that we do not.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007


A “regional town hall” meeting to discuss the FairTax is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. on Monday, 09 July, at the Classic Center. Congressman John Linder will be in attendance, as will “other special guests to be announced.” The meeting is free and open to the public. Additional information will be forthcoming as the program is finalized.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Taxes - School District Edition

Okay gang, this is another long one in which I tie together a number of issues that I have followed over the past few years (hopefully in a coherent fashion). My point is that the Clarke County School District spends way too much money, delivers a poor return on the community’s investment, and engages in questionable financial practices.

In 2002, the District’s portion of the property tax millage rate was 18.75 mills and its expenditures amounted to $8225 per pupil.

In 2003, those figures rose to 19.25 mills and $8741 per pupil.

In 2004, those figures rose again to 19.50 mills and $8902 per pupil. I’ve written ad nauseam on how the Board of Education blatantly violated the Georgia Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights with this particular millage rate increase. To make a (very) long story short, the Department of Revenue’s position on the matter was that its regulations, ostensibly written to implement the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, actually allowed local taxing authorities to do precisely what that law prohibited (I kid you not). Also in 2004, the Board appropriated about $150,000 to develop a plan for spending SPLOST 3 revenue. The problem was that the money for the study itself was slated to be repaid by SPLOST 3 revenue (in other words, by a tax that might not have been approved by the voters and put into effect three years down the road). Had the referendum not passed, the money for the study would have had to be cannibalized from elsewhere in the budget.

In 2005, those figures rose again to 20.0 mills, the limit imposed by the state constitution beyond which the District cannot go without voter approval of a referendum to that effect, and $9038 per pupil.

In 2006, the millage rate remained constant but expenditures rose to $9617 per pupil. A quick glance at the figures reveals that its 2006 spending ranks the District at about number 12 out of 180 school districts in the state (or at about the 93rd percentile). Of the systems that spend more that the CCSD, two appear to be urban (Atlanta and Decatur) and the remainder are rural systems that have to spread fixed administrative and capital expenditures over a much smaller student population (i.e. for about 250-1100 students). For those 2006 expenditures, we got dropout rates of 30.6% at Cedar Shoals and 40.4% at Clarke Central, and 8 schools (out of 19, or 42.1%) that did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals. I do not have test scores at hand, but my recollection is that they were below the state average pretty much across the board, especially in the upper grades. Also in 2006, the Board of announced plans to hold its SPLOST 3 referendum as a special election in the month of September. To do so would entail an unnecessary expense, estimated at $40,438, to open and staff all 24 of the county’s precincts and program voting machines. This would be for a ballot with only one question, to be held on an election date guaranteed to result in a low turn-out. Faced with a public outcry, the Board eventually opted to hold its referendum in November concurrent with other elections.

For 2007, the millage rate remains constant. The District’s tentative budget for 2007-2008 comes to approximately $117.5 million (plus another $11.8 million in reserve and contingency funds). This means that per pupil spending will in all likelihood surpass $10,000.

And . . . there was the bit about the District paying big bucks to join the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia. Given the expenditures detailed above, I found such a move unconscionable. Eventually, the District pulled out of the Consortium because per pupil dues were scheduled to quadruple for 2008, bringing the cost for remaining in the Consortium to almost $100,000.

And . . . consider that the various SPLOST bond resolutions specified that property taxes would be levied to repay the bonds if sales tax revenues were insufficient to pay the debt incurred by them. Admittedly, this situation was/is unlikely to occur. Nonetheless, even the remote possibility that property taxes may have been raised in order to cover any shortfalls in the sales taxes pledged to pay off bond debt service should cause the taxpayers grave concern.

And . . . according to the office of the Athens-Clarke County Tax Assessor’s office the value of the county’s property tax digest has risen by an average of 9-10% annually in recent years, thereby generating substantially more property tax revenue irrespective of millage rate increases.

The per pupil expenditures noted above are taken from the financial reports produced annually by the Georgia Department of Education.

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

10th Congressional District Forum

With the caveat that I did not hear the entire thing, here are my impressions of the 10th congressional district candidate forum

It was gratifying to hear most of the candidates express support for the FairTax to one degree or another. I have been a supporter of it for years, to the point of spending a couple of April 15th evenings handing out FairTax brochures to folks dropping their income tax returns at the Post Office on Olympic Drive.

I was most interested to hear the Libertarian, Jim Sendelbach. Libertarians are so right on so many issues, save some specific areas like open borders and foreign policy. I was pleased with Sendelbach’s willingness to secure the borders as part of fixing the illegal immigration program. His noninterventionist foreign policy, while great in a theoretical sense, falls flat when exposed to the totalitarian and ideological thugs who populate the real world.

Whether one agrees with his positions or not, Paul Broun showed himself not to be the Neanderthal that some would have voters believe.

James Marlow’s support of the immigration legislation currently before the U.S. Senate, the only candidate in the race so inclined, may play well in Athens, but will kill him pretty much everywhere else in the district.

Flagpole guru Pete McCommons is a smart guy. I have to wonder, though, about the economic assumptions that formed the basis of his questions concerning tax policy and gasoline “price gouging.”

I doubt that Jim Whitehead hurt himself very much by skipping the forum. Given the political proclivities of Athens-Clarke County, he probably is not going to poll well here, anyway. Besides, he would be competing for what conservative votes that do exist on Paul Broun’s home turf. Even so, I think that he should have shown up.

Finally, some asides: I would like to see a real debate among candidates, as opposed to the forum format used by the Athens Press Club (not that anyone asked me); I get annoyed when candidates omit answering the questions posed to them and go straight into their talking points; and I have yet to get enthused about this race. Of course, the real fun does not start until the runoff campaign begins.

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Kudos to Carl

Though we disagree on many issues, Commissioner Jordan and I do share a certain affinity regarding fiscal matters (my thoughts on the Unified Government’s FY08 budget are detailed in an earlier post). With that said, I thank Carl for his lone vote against the budget.

Also, thanks to Blake Aued for his kind words about me vis-à-vis Carl.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

An Impertinent Observation

The same listing of hosts for a reception (i.e. fundraiser) for candidate James Marlow can be found on at least three local blogs. Notably, the list includes a who’s who of local politicos: the mayor, eight of the ten current commissioners, the tax commissioner, and a state representative (not to mention a former mayor and a former state representative).

Of course, elected officials are free to contribute, endorse, or otherwise support any candidates they choose. On the other hand, however, all of the other candidates in the race, of whatever party, may legitimately wonder if such apparent unanimity amounts to a de facto endorsement of Mr. Marlow by the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County. Just food for thought.

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Monday, June 4, 2007

Taxes - Unified Government Edition

Okay gang, this is going to be a long one, so bear with me.

First, the numbers: the “General Fund” operating budget proposed for FY08 increases by 7.26% over FY07 ($99,427,587 and $92,692,351, respectively); the operating budget for “All Funds” increases by 9.03% ($151,352,289 and $138,809,320, respectively); and the capital portion of the budget increases by 248.69% ($61,748,200 and $17,708,800, respectively). Altogether, the proposed FY08 budget represents a whopping 36.15% increase over that of the current fiscal year ($213,100,489 versus $156,518,120). Even excluding the massive capital budget increase, the Unified Government plans to spend more than a million dollars per month more in FY08 than in FY07. Yet we are told that this is a “lean” budget - and the groundwork for a millage rate increase next year has already been laid.

In the Executive Summary for the FY08 budget (page B1), we are told that:

“The proposed millage rate for 2007 is 12.80 mills, the same rate as the last two years. With this millage rate, Athens-Clarke County residents will continue to pay lower property taxes for local government services than most other surrounding counties and other similar communities in Georgia.”

Bunk. This claim is based only on the millage rate; it does not take assessments or other aspects of local taxes and fees into account.

For example, speaking of those “local government services,” the millage rate does not include the separate fees charged by the Unified Government for basic services such as solid waste collection, water service, and sanitary sewer service. Any comparison with other counties or municipalities that does not factor in such charges (ours and theirs) is incomplete.

By the way, those who live in the old city limits (the Urban Services district) can expect the rates they pay for each of these services to increase on 01 October. Additionally, the commission is implementing a never before charged zoning permit fee. For documentation, see items 1, 18, and 19 on the commission’s June agenda for details. For many of those who live in the formerly unincorporated areas of the county, any discussion of utility rates is academic; by and large, they still do not have access to them (despite the explicit provisions of the Unified Government’s Charter).

And about that millage rate: it is true that it has been reduced a couple of times in recent years, but two salient points must be remembered:

Owing to increased assessments, property taxes increased in years that the millage rate remained the same or even decreased. In and of itself, a millage rate reduction by no means results in a property tax reduction. This does not mean that the taxes on every single property increased, but rather for the digest as a whole, which is precisely what state law means when it talks about property taxes increases. Also, the two millage rates reductions touted by the Unified Government must be understood in their proper contexts.

The first was entirely due to the efforts of Clarke County Republicans, who met several times in 2004 to analyze the proposed budget and identify areas where we though the Unified Government could make cuts (or more specifically, not increase spending to take advantage of the higher revenue coming in under the existing millage rate). Those findings were presented to the Commission, which in fairness did adopt some of them, resulting in a millage rate reduction. Make no mistake, however, as before we made our presentation, no one "inside the rail" was talking about a millage rate reduction, only about how to spend the new "free" money (at least no one had breathed a word about a reduction publicly).

The second was a sham, pure and simple. The budget text plainly indicated that the revenue supposedly lost to the Unified Government would instead be collected in the form of the new stormwater utility fee rather than as property tax. The new charge was structured as a "fee" for the sole purpose of getting money out of those entities, such as churches, the school district, UGA, etc., that are exempt from property taxes. Of course, for those on the paying end, there is no functional difference between a tax and a fee.

And by the way, according to the Clarke County Tax Assessor’s web site, the value of the county’s property tax digest has been going up by 9-10% per year recently. Thus, the Unified Government rakes in substantially more in property tax revenue on an annual basis, simply by virtue of doing . . . absolutely nothing (except for increasing assessments, that is).

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Friday, June 1, 2007

Commission Voting Sessions

Commissioner Kathy Hoard is entirely correct in thinking that the limitation on public comment at commission voting sessions, a procedural change slated to go into effect next month, is a bad idea.

She is also correct in noting that any attempts to limit the duration of commission voting sessions would be better directed at those inside the rail, rather than at we uppity citizens foolishly seeking to influence our elected representatives on important issues of the day.

At present, each commissioner is entitled to 15 minutes on each agenda item (3 periods of 5 minutes each). Contrast that with the six minutes members of the public gets to discuss the consent agenda (3 minutes) and old and new business (3 minutes), regardless of how many agenda items either section may encompass. While it is true that the public may speak at meetings other than the voting session, the same is true of commissioners.

The more important problem, however, has to do with the political philosophy employed by the commission. The purpose of the Unified Government’s legislative body is to set policy for the county in broad terms, not to micromanage the properties, business, and lives of the county’s citizens. I think that as the commission has become more “progressive,” it has also become more interventionist, more intrusive, and more authoritarian. Thus, unsurprisingly, citizens have a vested interest in keeping close tabs on, and making their views known to, the commission.

Finally, I find that the most vexing aspect of the proposed change concerning public comment is its timing. The mayor and six of the ten commissioners were elected within the last few months, all of whom were perfectly aware of the existing procedures for taking public comment when they ran for office. I recall none of them campaigned on a platform of limiting public input at voting sessions, until they were safely ensconced in office, that is.

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Credit Where It Is Due

Thanks to Mayor Heidi Davison for the proclamation delivered to Clarke County’s Adoptive and Foster Parents Association during its recent annual banquet at the Classic Center. Also, thanks to Commissioner Elton Dodson for his reading of the proclamation in the mayor’s absence, who I understand was out of town.

I am not shy about criticizing local government when I think such criticism is warranted. On the other hand, though, the officials of that government sometimes deserve praise (and there is more to life than politics).

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