Friday, August 27, 2010

Mayoral Candidate Questions

The Clarke County GOP is holding a mayoral candidate forum tomorrow evening (see here and here). Instead of the usual drivel about TDRs, “green” this, and “sustainable” that typically asked by the folks over at Flagpole, the Banner-Herald, the Federation of Neighborhoods, and the Athens Grow Green Coalition, below are the kinds of questions that I want the candidates to answer.

The Unified Government’s Charter plainly states that the millage rates charged in the county’s various tax districts should reflect the level of government services available in those districts. Instead, for years City Hall has charged those who live in the “general services” district the same millage rate as those who live in the “urban services” district, even though they receive far fewer services. Do you support reducing the millage rate in the general services district to compensate for this lack of services? Why or why not?

A few years ago, the Clarke County Board of Education raised its millage rate after holding the legally-mandated public budget hearings on a budget that did not include a millage rate hike. When interested citizens presented Clarke County School District and Unified Government officials with clear and convincing evidence that this practice violated both the state Code and the Department of Revenue’s regulations, those officials' responses consisted of uniform evasion and denial. Given that it was your legal responsibility to see that proper procedures were followed in the adoption of the Board’s budget, why should the voters of Athens-Clarke County entrust any further such responsibilities to you?

The current mayor has repeatedly called for a “circuit breaker” mechanism that would link one’s property taxes to one’s income. Regardless of the practical difficulties that may accompany the implementation of such a plan, do you support this approach in theory? Why or why not?

The “conservation subdivision” ordinance enacted years ago slashed the property values of rural residents by making land in the AR zones essentially un-developable. In the several years since the ordinance was adopted, not a single such subdivision has been built, or for that matter even proposed, because the requirements are so Draconically restrictive (and no, the Orange Twin development did not meet the requirements for a conservation subdivision). Do you favor revisiting the ordinance? Why or why not?

Instead of limiting their use to emergency situations, the Commission has imposed a wide array of development moratoria as a means of crafting policy in recent years. These measures routinely are instituted with little to no advance notice, either by adopting them at special called sessions held on nights when votes would not normally be taken or by adding them to the agenda of regular voting sessions at the last minute. Either way, this practice has the effect of rendering the existing zoning ordinances meaningless, since they can be (and have been) suspended at any time. Do you support this practice? Why or why not?

The written agreement you signed on behalf of the Unified Government with the Dunlap Road citizens group promising that the Athens-Clarke County landfill would never be expanded proved utterly meaningless. Given the two decades-long history of broken promises to those who reside in the formerly unincorporated areas of the county, why should they have any belief that the Unified Government will finally live up to the commitments previously made to them?

For almost two decades, the Commission has steadfastly ignored those provisions of the Unified Government’s Charter that call for extending services into the formerly unincorporated areas of the county and for turning control of Ben Epps Airport over to the Clarke County Airport Authority. Do you support adhering to the explicit provisions of the Charter? If so, what will you do to implement them? If not, should the Charter be amended to eliminate these provisions? Why or why not? If the Charter should be amended, should it be through a popular referendum or unilaterally by a vote of the Commission?

Fire Station No. 6, located at the intersection of Athens and Olympic Drives has been closed for a year and a half due to the snowstorm on 01 March 2009. This extended closure may well have played a part in the environmental damage resulting from the J&J Chemical Company fire. Rather than rebuild the station with the insurance money and its own funds, the Unified Government postponed any reconstruction activity for almost fifteen months, during which time it unsuccessfully sought an Obama Administration “economic stimulus” grant to rebuild the station. Was this the appropriate strategy? Why or why not? What, if anything, would you have done differently?

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Anonymous said...

You wrote: "Instead, for years City Hall has charged those who live in the “general services” district the same millage rate as those who live in the “urban services” district, even though they receive far fewer services."

James: you frequently make this claim. But what, specifically, are the services that those in the old city get that are paid for from the General Fund that those in the old county do not?

james said...

Once again, the issue is not how services are funded, the issue is the AVAILABILITY of services (you know, all of that stuff promised during the campaign leading up to the third city-county consolidation vote and written into the Charter).

In fact, Section 1-105(b) of the Charter plainly says:

"Taxes shall be assessed, levied and collected in accordance with the kind, character, type, degree and level of services provided by the government within said service districts, and the rate and manner of taxation may vary in any one district from that in another or other districts."

Since residents in the general services district gets screwed insofar as water lines, sewer lines, trash pickup, etc., are concerned, the millage rate charged to them should be lower that to those to whom such services are available.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. The issue exactly IS whether residents across the county are getting the same services for the property taxes they pay. To do otherwise would be unfair. So, as you surely know, water and sewer lines are not paid for out of the General Fund but from an enterprise fund which is not supported by property taxes, and the residents within the old city pay an additional fee for trash pickup (they do not get it "free" from the govt). If people in the old county and old city are getting the same services from the General Fund into which their property taxes go (which is what the millage rate is all about), then why should they not pay the same rate? That seems only fair.

james said...

And with all due respect, I, too, disagree (and suspect that we will have to agree to disagree).

Though I see the logic of your point, I think that you are mistaken in your assumption. That is because the Charter does not make any distinction between services that are paid for through the general fund and those paid for through enterprise funds. Nor, I believe, was any such distinction intended.

The way I read the section (and, I daresay, the way its was sold to the voting public) is that the provision of services to the peripheral area of the county was deliberately implied (explicitly so in the Charter), with the assurance that if services were not provided, any lack of thereof would be reflected in the millage rate paid by that area.

The problem is that, in any given situation concerning the general services district, the Unified Government assumes the most restrictive interpretation it can come up with as to why the Charter does not mean what it says. Such interpretations, however, are not supported by a plain reading of the document, nor by the history of city-county consolidation.

Lately, though, those inside the rail have explicitly acknowledged that their intent is to discourage development in the peripheral area of the county by any means available - going so far as to discuss unilaterally amending the Charter so as to "correct" those provisions with which they disagree.

I think that the Charter simply means what it says - no logical or legal convolutions are needed to decipher its meaning.

By the way, I doubt that those folks who live near Fire Station No. 6 (you know, the one a mere mile away from the J&J Chemical Company that has been closed for a year and a half) feel that they get the same level of services, ostensibly paid for through the general fund, as in-town neighborhoods like Five Points and Cobbham. :)

Even if we cannot agree on this point, what do you think of my other questions?

Anonymous said...

James, water, sewer and trash pickup are enterprise funds and are not paid for with any tax money. I live in the urban services district. Why should I pay higher taxes because I get city water, sewer and trash pickup when I'm paying for those services in addition to my tax bill? With (arguably) the exception of buses, we both get the exact same services that are funded with property taxes through the general fund (courts, police, roads, etc.). Blake

Anonymous said...

I have no problem in agreeing to disagree. And disagreeing doesn't mean having to be disagreeable -- which is the problem with too much of our political "debate" these days! The only thing I'd say -- and then I'll shut up about this -- is that technically the enterprise funds for sewer, trash etc are not taxes but user fees: the more you use, the more you pay. Property taxes are taxes that you pay regardless. I know that there is a tendency for some to say that there is no difference b/w a user fee and a tax, but although that makes good political theater it is not legally correct, as the courts have repeatedly ruled.

I will have to go back and look at the Charter but I believe there is an implicit distinction made in it, which is why enterprise funds cannot be used for anything but the enterprise to which they accrue and General Funds cannot be used for enterprise fund activities. Now, whether that distinction was understood when unification was sold to the public, I don't know. I doubt most people could tell you the difference, but how people understnd things and how they are are two different things :-)

I think your other questions are good. They are better than the usual pablum of "why do you want to be Mayor"!

james said...


Because that is what is stipulated in the Charter. The provision was included as an incentive for those who did not get such services at the time of city-county consolidation to vote for consolidation with the anticipation that they would get them.

I, in turn, have some questions for you:

Why is it that when the Charter says that services should be extended throughout the county, it does not really mean what it says?

Why is it that when the Charter says that millage rates should vary by tax district based on the availability of services (never broaching the issue of general fund versus enterprise funds), it does not really mean what it says?

Why is it that when the Charter says that control of Ben Epps Airport should be turned over to the Clarke County Airport Authority, it does not really mean what it says?

Why is it that the peripheral areas of the county had to wait for years after Fire Stations 3 and 4, located in town, were rebuilt to get Fire Stations 8 and 9?

Why is it that Fire Station No. 6 (the only one in District 1) has been closed for a full year and a half (and counting)?

Why is it when the Unified Government promises to never expand the landfill (in writing, no less), its promise is not worth the paper on which it is written?

Why is it that the AR zones have been made virtually un-developable on the promise that density can be added through "conservation subdivision" regulations that are a practical impossibility to achieve?

Why is it that in every given situation, the folks in the general services district get the shaft?

The simple answer is that their government lied to them and is now contemplating changing the rules. The bit about millage rates should not be viewed in a vacuum - it is part and parcel of the manner in which the general services district has been (first) neglected and (now) targeted for years.


I too, will shut up with this: my claim that the Charter makes no distinction between the general fund and various enterprise funds concerns this particular section of the Charter.

Anonymous said...

I understand your frustrations, James. My point is simply that it is also not fair for people in the urban service district to pay higher taxes into the general fund than general service district residents when we all do receive the same level of service that is funded by those taxes.

Your questions are interesting and I hope you get a chance to ask them.


james said...

No problem. I probably will not be there, though my questions may get asked. The local GOP solicited potential questions and, not being the shy type, I submitted some.

Due to personal circumstances, I stepped back from most of my political activities quite a while ago.

Now I just sit, pajama-clad, in my darkened basement, ranting in the blogosphere and penning the occasional letter to the editor. :)

Anonymous said...

"Why is it when the Unified Government promises to never expand the landfill (in writing, no less), its promise is not worth the paper on which it is written?"

Because legally they cannot make that promise. Ask Carlton North how he made out whit his promise. Frankly, I think he came out smelling like a rose, but I bet the people to whom he sold houses didn't do so well.

james said...

I understand about the legalities of the landfill agreement, but my point concerns policy rather than legality.

The Unified Government does not have to expand the landfill; to do so is a policy decision (admittedly, expansion of the present facility is far and away the easiest option, but there are others - and that is not the question at issue).

My point has to do with a policy decision - until the Unified Government decided to break its promise, the question of whether its written agreement was "legally binding" was irrelevent.

It was only at that time that the Unified Government wanted to jetison the agreement that it, all too happily, invoked the not-legally-binding argument.

City Hall is not breaking its promise because it has no legal option, it is breaking its promise as a matter of policy and using the legal argument as the excuse as to why it can.

Anonymous said...

When they were discussing this I don't recall any of the elected officials mentioning this document and its illegality as a means to avoid following it. I seem to recall that they voted to expand the landfill because it was about to fill up and it was easier and cheaper to expand next to an existing landfill than to build a new one somewhere else. What other REALISTIC options did they have?

james said...

Trust me, they did.

Here are portions of what I wrote back in December 2007:

“Like most others, I think that expanding the current landfill is far and away the best option available in terms of practicality and expense. The alternatives, namely those of constructing another landfill elsewhere (good luck with that one) or transferring our waste to some other government’s landfill, are problematic to say the least.”


“The issue is not that of a local legislative body, or mayor as the case may be, limiting the actions of their successors; I fully understand the O.C.G.A. prohibition of that practice and agree with it’s rationale. The issue is not whether the agreement was legally binding. The issue, rather, is the trustworthiness of government in general and the Unified Government in particular - and by that I mean the conspicuous lack thereof. My point is that government’s reneging on this promise is much bigger than the specific case of the landfill.”


“I concede that the current Mayor and Commission cannot win on the particular issue of the landfill – there is simply no good option available to them. But to the residents directly involved, and by extension the other residents of the formerly unincorporated areas of the county, does that really matter? They have seen this song and dance too many times before.”

I understand the decision to expand the landfill, but it was still the wrong one

For reference purposes concerning the “legally-binding” argument, see these:

Anonymous said...

I'd argue all agreements between elected authority and those they represent are bound to be deemed 'illegal' and unenforceable. It's a game, you see.