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Commissioners vs Citizens?
Two Front Page Articles Beg The Question: What Is Actually Going On In Catoosa Meetings?
A topic is sure to grab readers' attention if it appears on the front page twice in a three-week period. In the previous 30 days, two different stories have made the front page in the Catoosa County News. Both focus on criticisms of the Catoosa county commission. Seeing as how I am a rather prolific critic of the government myself, I figured it was time I looked into it.
Both articles essentially detailed the remarks made by citizens and county commissioners at two separate meetings of the Catoosa County board of commissioners. I have seen the two sessions in question as well as numerous others and I hope to explain topics that have so enraged so few people. Residents were especially incensed by the recent property tax hike, and they were not satisfied with how Commissioners have been handling their concerns.
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If you read the stories or see public comments at the meetings, you can feel the residents' outrage. But that's a mistake, since neither story really looked at their problems.
First, Let’s Discuss Taxes And Start By Looking Back.
In a special election held in 2019, the voters rejected a 1% sales tax dedicated for transportation purposes. More than ten million dollars in yearly tax money would have been generated were it approved. This money would have had unique benefits for the county. The fungibility of TSPLOST funds is its significant advantage. Road paving and other transportation costs, as well as public transportation and storm-water infrastructure, could have drawn from this funding instead of property taxes. Without TSPLOST, the county still needs to pay for the same kinds of things out of general revenues, most notably property taxes.
Since TSPLOST is a sales tax, at least half of the money would come from those who live outside of Catoosa county, reducing the property tax burden for everyone. So, this seemed like an easy decision if the goal is to maintain low property taxes.
It was Steven Henry's belief when he was elected to the Catoosa County Commission in 2016 that looking at the big picture and taking a long term view of things is crucial for good government. While in office, he pushed for a new homestead exemption for seniors and fought ardently against increases in tax rates. As part of his long term approach, he advocated for the TSPLOST. His reasoning was unassailable. If the county enacted TSPLOST it would be able to maintain one of the lowest property tax rates in the state.
Henry's approach was prudent and deliberate looking at the big picture. Unfortunately, the political equivalent of a gaggle of lab rats on amphetamines that would go on to take control of the Catoosa republican party in 2021 has no concept of taking a long view and had other ideas. His plans for long-term low property taxes clashed with their fact free illogical ideas. The group was depressingly effective in tapping into the healthy aversion voters have for taxes and engineered the defeat for TSPLOST.
When I heard people complaining about the recent property tax hike, I immediately thought of Steven Henry's repeated calls for people to take the long view. After years of no tax increases and constraints on LOST revenue allocations, it should come as no surprise that the county would have to raise taxes since citizens were hoodwinked on TSPLOST.
Checking The Numbers
During the meetings, several remarks contrasted numbers from earlier years to those from the present. The rise was not as significant as claimed since the figures were not adjusted for inflation. In addition, the comparison year, fiscal year 2011-2012, was also the year with the lowest income after the 2008-2009 financial crisis. By adjusting for inflation, the numbers from 2007 to 2021 show a slight gain, but it's important to note that the county has had considerable expansion since then.
Accountability & Free Speech
Turning to the question of citizens' right to free speech and the board of commissioners' accountability. I am yet again surprised by this. Mr. Transparency that I am, I cannot fathom why the public show such disdain in their remarks at each and every meeting. Even less do I believe it merits not one, but TWO, lead stories.
Is Catoosa actively avoiding accountability? Catoosa has been broadcasting county meetings for some time. A plethora of financial data are available online, and county public relations director John Pless responds to requests for further information. This appears to be more of a problem with a subset of the population that is unhappy with the choices and responses they have received and remain unhappy. That is perfectly understandable and a sign of a healthy civic society. You cannot please everyone.
Much has been made about the citizen’s right to address and criticize the commissioners at the regular meetings. While this may seem like a right, it is not. There is no legal requirement for the board of commissioners to have a public comment period during the meetings. That they do is their decision alone.
A government may allow individuals to exercise their First Amendment rights when it allows time for a "public comment" period at an open meeting. Officials may impose reasonable time, place, and manner constraints on speech, control disruptive or unduly repetitious speakers, and confine remarks to the pertinent subject matter.
The matter has been litigated even further in numerous federal cases. Argumentative or disruptive conduct cannot be protected by a claim of First Amendment rights, as the court explained in Steinburg v. Chesterfield County Planning Comm'n, 527 F.3d 377 (4th Cir. 2008):
Officials presiding over such meetings must have discretion . . . to cut off speech which they reasonably perceive to be, or imminently to threaten, a disruption of the orderly and fair progress of the discussion, whether by virtue of its irrelevance, its duration, or its very tone and manner.
In addition, the steady stream of inflammatory speech from a vocal minority of residents may have much greater consequences than its proponents understand. Because the meetings are broadcast live and videotaped, everything spoken during the public comment session has the potential to incite a hazardous level of agitation among those watching online. In fact, numerous online comments regarding the county commissioners following Mitchell Horner's midnight ride budget stunt contained demands for physical harm and even murder for the commissioners.
The risk is real and shouldn’t be dismissed. Who can forget the horrifying footage of a shooter entering a school board meeting in Panama City, Florida, and pointing a pistol at the board members? Luckily, just the shooter was killed, but there have been many more situations like this when that wasn't the case. Ten years ago, five members of a city council in Missouri were gunned down by a resident during a public comment period.
I propose the county implement an online question and answer knowledge base so that citizens may submit questions and complaints then have the question and answers displayed in a easily accessible public database. This will serve to cool passions and it will aid citizens who may have similar questions or complaints in the future.
Fire Sale On Real Estate Assets Needed?
Two of the other common complaints are regarding the county's ownership of the old Hutcheson site and facilities and a land bought near Jack Maddox park a few years ago. Once again, a little investigation and consideration of the big picture offers a explanation. The commissioners have been clear that selling the Hutcheson property is their ultimate goal from the get-go. Given the site’s value and its position in an area of assured expansion, the county is likely to reap a handsome profit from a future sale, even if it takes years for the perfect deal to come along.
Alternatively, the county could give in to the lab rat crowd's demands to take the short term view and sell quickly. They may even locate a buyer immediately. A certain chicken processing factory operator, I've been informed, is aggressively seeking locations willing to house their facilities. How does that sound?
It's the same long term vs short term story with the other property as well. Commissioner Charlie Stephens made some insightful remarks on this topic at one of the meetings.
At the end of the day, it's plain to see that this collection of locals has the best interests of the community at heart. Yet, while venting one's anger during the public comment phase of meetings may provide temporary satisfaction, it does little to advance the meetings' stated goals or encourage meaningful civic engagement.
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance ---- that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -- Herbert Spencer
But the commissioners aren't perfect, either. In the 21st century, it makes no sense that county governments don't post every single expense and revenue transaction. If the county buys a lightbulb from Ace Hardware, that purchase should show up in an online transaction register. Every school district and the state have practiced this for many years. Even the city of Atlanta now does it. Does Catoosa or Walker really want to be less open and less transparent than the city of Atlanta? Here is an example of an online open checkbook for the city of Alpharetta, GA. Sites like these can also list all contracts and procurement agreements thereby allowing for vendors to offer lower prices if they can beat what the county currently pays.
A performance management program with public accountability reports would add to this and further increase citizen trust in the county government.
There is room to save money and improve services too. The county has numerous activities which can be outsourced to the private market. Mowing is just one of them. A top to bottom review should be undertaken to evaluate which activities should be put up for competitive bid and which are best served by government.
Lastly, I'm hesitant to criticize a fellow writer and watcher of local government, but I have to wonder: what motivated these pieces and the perspective taken? The information was available to give readers proper context, but the claims made in the meetings were not checked out and instead presented as is. I think it's important to challenge the actions of the government in its many forms and to insist on accountability from our leaders. This, however, will only serve to fortify the State.
Also, for all the anger that people have toward county and city governments, it is surprising how much the school systems get a pass from citizens and especially journalists. Not only do school districts collect and spend significantly more tax dollars, but they also shun openness and accountability like the plague.
Some Questions To Ponder
Would anybody be interested in learning how much the retirement and post-employment benefit liabilities for Catoosa County Schools are unfunded? The amount is more than what the county government spends in a whole year. It's almost twice as much in Walker.
Put another way: the unfunded liabilities for both systems are astronomical.
Or, how much of the $5.9 billion that was given to Georgia schools as a stimulus package has been spent in Catoosa and on what?
Or, why has the number of teachers increased in proportion to the number of pupils since 1998, while the number of school and district administrators and other employees has increased significantly faster than the pace of student growth?
Or, better yet, why do between 20% and 40% of students in grades 3-8 read below grade level at the end of each grade, even though huge amounts of money are spent every year and the number of students in each grade has decreased?
It seems like the county and surrounding area might benefit much from answers and investigation of these and other questions brought to light by an investigative public and a critical local news media.
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