Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Year's Reading

Having started One Capital Removed on a whim almost a year ago in January 2009, I thought it appropriate to recognize the New Year with some dispatch of subconscious ramblings proofed on excessive intake of ham sausage biscuits and other fine holiday fare.
Fighting the desire to recap the year by organizing it into top-ten lists, I’ve decided instead to focus on the future and write down some predictions and promises to provide readers and haters alike some kind of objective yard stick with which to judge One Capital Removed during the next 360.

To start on the positive side—because there’s not much positive to talk about looking ahead from this vantage point—Baldwin County has about the best representation on all levels of government that it could hope to have moving forward. From the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. to City Hall on Hancock Street, local electors can be confidant that there are many good men and women working hard to help this community achieve its best possible tomorrow.

The next year will challenge all of those people and I expect to be writing about many of their efforts throughout 2010. Not all of its going to be good, and not all of it bad. Let’s hope everyone respects the gravity of the situation at hand and decides to put their best efforts toward making the hard decisions that will put Milledgeville-Baldwin County on a road to success in its third century of being.

Before we begin blocking out everything else to focus on the Goobernatorial throw down destined for our July and November ballots, let’s remember that Milledgeville City Council’s first order of business will be to recruit and put in place a professional city administrator per the 2006 revision of its City Charter.
Whoever the majority of City Council puts in place to be the city’s second professional executive will have the benefit of not being the first person to take that seat, but the challenge of maintaining momentum toward efficient and effective city government. Milledgeville has a number of dedicated employees who will help make that transition a smooth one, let’s give them the leadership they need to make this city the best possible place to live.

Both the City of Milledgeville and Baldwin County will be subject to the immense pressure of maintaining a balanced budget throughout the ongoing economic recession (I mean it in how we’re going to look at this time in the future, not its academic definition).

Baldwin County will give us our first glimpse of the hard decisions to be faced by local governments in this second year of economic malaise when it begins putting together its budget three months ahead of schedule.
Just before the end of the calendar year, Baldwin County Commission voted to shorten Fiscal Year 2010 by three months, ending March 31, and begin budgeting a nine-month ‘tween’ year before moving to a calendar year-fiscal year. This paper change will allow the county to allocate a larger portion of its 2009 property tax levy to paying off debt obligations.
County Finance Director Linda Zarkowsky said in an interview at the time the change was proposed that Baldwin County has spent their revenue entire shortfall reserve and this accounting change allows them a one-time opportunity to effectively erase their debt. But the use of all those property tax dollars will put all county departments, including the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, on a budgetary tight rope, with no room for unexpected occurrences or growth.

The City of Milledgeville has seemingly yet-to-be affected by shrinking revenue collections. City coffers benefited from several renegotiated contracts with Baldwin County during the last round of service delivery agreements, freeing city funds and guarding against any immediate need to raise the millage rate. Milledgeville even created new revenue streams by raising the local hotel/motel tax and renegotiating the city’s contract with the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But no one knows the depth of the current economic crisis, and any forecasts culled from the national media don’t figure in the decimation of the local state employment base and the outsourcing of the community’s manufacturing base to cheaper locations across the hemisphere and globe.

Don’t expect the Georgia General Assembly to be any help in balancing these shaky city and county spending guesstimations, or even in providing a level footing from which to make them.

Whether singled out for individual bloodletting, or cut across the board with the rest of the state, Milledgeville will have to bear more of the brunt of the state budget crisis. State employees I’ve talked to say the recent budget cuts announced by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities have equated to as many as 12 furlough days for some employees. And with Mens and Bostick state prisons on the Department of Corrections list of non-enduring facilities, the pendulum will always swing low in Baldwin County as legislators look for places to cut down to the bone.

I expect state legislators will not only hold the line on any new taxes and/or expanded bureaucracy, but look for more ways of making Georgia business friendly by sweetening the pot with whatever kind of tax incentive/break they can think up.
Presumptive Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has already gone on record saying the Georgia General Assembly will not raise taxes (in an election year, even) to get out of this mess, and that leaves only one other course of action: Cutting the budget proportionate to the decline in revenues.
Revenue collections in November 2009 were down $230,664,000 or 16.2 percent from November 2008 figures, and year-to-date collections were down 15.4 percent. And don’t forget that the current spending plan benefited from large sums of federal dollars in the form of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus plan.
So as we commentators repeatedly punch leads with some play on ‘It’s all about the budget,’ it is all about the budget, the same way it is every year, but more so this year than any time in any living person’s memory.

Unless there are any other Gov. Roy Barnes-era tax rebates left on the books, I can’t imagine the General Assembly will pass anything that could possibly be perceived as a tax increase, unless it comes in the form of a Constitutional Amendment approved by voters in a ballot referendum this November.
After years of flirting with the idea, a referendum may be the way that legislators finally consummate new transportation funding. For at least the last two years the debate has been between a statewide penny sales tax and allowing groups of cities/counties to band together to levy a penny sales tax to fund improvements in their neck of the woods. The referendum, which I think is only necessary for the regional plan, would allow legislators to return home from Atlanta saying that it is in voters’ hands to do what must be done.

On the other side of the ledger, I think legislators will continue to look at the way property taxes are assessed and levied. Don’t think legislators won’t upset the apple cart just because the state’s coffers are drying up.
But property tax reform really should be rallied around as an openness in government type issue; if you’re going to tie tax assessments to fair market value, then I feel those assessments really should reflect what homes and cars are selling for in this economy.
Again, this will make local governments out to be the villains, because they will then be forced to jack the millage rate up through the roof of that house you just bought at January 2010 fair market value.
I think the rumors about axing the inventory tax will grow louder. But I don’t expect legislators to come together on a way of allowing local governments to take more control of sales tax collection—just sounds too complicated.

It was too late of a realization to save anyone from running for office in 2008, but after a whole year of hard times it amazes me that people still want to run for office. These last two years in Milledgeville have afforded me more opportunities than I would have liked to observe people on the campaign trail. And on the state level, 2010 will be the biggest year yet.
I expect that the New Year will not be replete without several more political scandals ala November-December 2009.
Expect to hear more about Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine’s lavish, campaign donor-financed Oscar vacations and former state Senator Eric Johnson’s hand in the dismissal of the ethics complaint filed against former state House Speaker Glenn Richardson. House Minority Leader Dubose Porter will say more things about how everyone in the Capitol knew about these things, but was too honor bound by the culture of corruption to do anything about it.
Georgia Democrats won’t be able to capitalize on these revelations as they have a long history of using leadership to their advantage under The Gold Dome.
David Poythress will continue to ram home the point that Democrats aren’t communists.
I hope more candidates will create their own spin-offs of Perdue’s King Roy commercial. But try as they might, I think that name recognition alone will give Barnes the Democratic nomination. Though I hope to hear more from small town mayor Carl Camon and Attorney General Thurbert Baker.
I’m going to play it safe and go with former Secretary of State Karen Handel on the Republican ticket. Scandal seems to follow the Ox like a pack of buzzards; I perceive Nathan Deal and Eric Johnson as too closely associated with disgraced Republican leadership; and the rest of the candidates—Republican and Democrat—who remain in elected office won’t be able to make up the funding gap.

And one final thought on partisan politics in the Peach State:
There is no way I think that Georgia and the state’s Republican Party won’t benefit from the 2010 U.S. Census.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently published the final set of population figures completed before the 2010 Census, and Georgia grew by 1,642,758 people between April 2000 and July 2009.
According to sources far more credible than I, Georgia is one of eight states that will gain a Congressman in the next round of redistricting. Inside the Peach State, that will mean a process of the Republican Party drawing strange shapes on a map of Georgia and state Senator Johnny Grant explaining to me how and why Baldwin County is being cut up into three U.S. Congressional Districts.

And the Most Pressing Issue (why I’m putting it toward the bottom), the U.S. Department of Justice will observe Central State Hospital again this month and release its verdict on whether or not the State of Georgia is in substantial compliance with Justice Department recommendations and findings in reference to violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
This is particularly embarrassing for the State of Georgia as it was defendant in the landmark Olmstead Decision that led the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the right of persons with disabilities to receive the care they need in their own communities.
This will be a particularly tight rope for Georgia as the violations affect more areas of the state’s mental health system than just its ability to reintegrate consumers back into their home communities; there are documented deficiencies in treatment and the physical conditions of the state’s network of regional hospitals.
New admissions to Central State Hospital recently were suspended because of concerns with the physical environment at the aging state mental health facility. And the entire system has long been accused of poor and improper administration of care.
Recommendations could include hiring more staff, renovating aging facilities, creating new ones and reengineering a network of community mental health resources statewide, and all at a time when Georgia doesn’t have available funds to do any one of those things.
To cut to plain English, Georgia is fighting to retain state control of its entire mental health system. The federal government is one step from coming to Georgia and mandating improvements without consideration of other areas of state responsibility.
How Milledgeville makes it through that will be one of 2010’s stories of the year.

Because there is always more than one.

As I said above, Twenty-ten is a make or break time for the City of Milledgeville, Baldwin County and the entire State of Georgia. I would need a whole other blog to begin understanding why this could be said of the nation and the world at large.
But my hopes for humanity are the same as my hopes for the community I call home.
Let’s all take a moment to calmly assess the situation at hand; don’t solely look at the danger and cost of what lies ahead, but think about the opportunities to improve our situation and how we will define our communities in this century, not just in the next decade.
(Mot—the shortened form of Bon Mot, or a witty remark—is the first new word I learned in the New Year.)

Even in the last week, I talked with city residents who want to throw an artistic coat of paint on the downtown commercial district. Their ambition that Milledgeville be another cultural jewel of Middle Georgia should most certainly align with the aspirations of the artists behind the Creative Expressions, Crazy W Creations and the now-defunct Wyndham Quinn galleries that opened in the last few years. And the state’s Public Liberal Arts University must help lead the way by continuing to showcase young and emerging artists.
The State of Georgia’s investment in Milledgeville’s Municipal Wireless Broadband Network puts this community at the forefront of modern communications technology. We must look at this as a challenge to blaze a new way forward in the next century.
Milledgeville Community Connections: Digital Bridges…Bringing People Together debuted last year and will be opening its John S. and James L. Knight Foundation-funded digital innovation center in downtown this month; I encourage anyone who has any ideas about how technology can be used to change the way do things to become a part of this platform for reimagining Milledgeville.
And I am always inspired by the residents who work to remind everyone that natural beauty is one of the things that make Baldwin County such a great place to live. Let all of us, both young and old, work to make the physical appearance of this community match the image that we carry in our hearts and minds.

I know this is a couple of days late, and it is surely a couple of topics short, but I hope it’ll help us all get attuned to the year ahead. Please keep me in the loop of the things you are interested in, and invite me to things that you think are important and underappreciated in the Milledgeville-Baldwin community.
Wishing you the best in the New Year,
Daniel McDonald

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