Thursday, October 30, 2008

Odd Endorsements: In The Year Of Obama, Certain Black Churches Going Republican

When a group of ministers come together to make political endorsements is God listening? Maybe, but it's hard to know for sure. When ministers come together and insert themselves into politics as a PAC, I imagine God disapprovingly wags his finger: Render unto Cesar that which belongs to Cesar, and leave that which belongs to God, unto God.

Did you know that under the "leadership" of Reverend Bennie Mitchell from Conners Temple a group called The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (The IMA) hands out political endorsements each election cycle? Yup, purportedly for the right amount of "divine contribution" a group of Black ministers will endorse your campaign. 

This year these holy men did not screen all candidates before making their endorsements. They did not interview Karen Grainey  (D) Candidate for the 6th district county commission, Steve Willis (D) 1st district county commission, Gerald Freedman (D) 4th district county commission, or myself (R) chairman county commission. But they have endorsed all republicans (myself excluded).

Remember 4 years ago when this group endorsed Pete Liakakis over Otis Johnson, Mayor Johnson offered these famous words: "Is the Black community for sale?"

You heard similar comments from Tony Center and others who wouldn't pony up and were not endorsed by the IMA. 

This year the IMA endorses Democrat Barack Obama for president, Democrat Jim Martin for US Senate, Democrat John Barrow for Congress, and Democrat Bill Gillespie for Congress. But locally the IMA has turned Republican. What? That's right, the IMA endorses Republican Helen Stone, Republican Pat Farrell, Republican Dave Gellatly, and 'FoRepublican' Pete Liakakis.

Not one of these local Republicans is supporting Barack Obama, they all support Republicans John McCain, Saxby Chambliss, Jack Kingston, and John Stone.

My, my, that's odd. One wonders how the good ministers will explain this obvious contradiction to their parishioners? That should be real interesting. I imagine every once in while they struggle with their Sunday sermon message but this is going to be really difficult.

The title of the Sundays sermon could easily be, Buy one, get three free.

I have received calls from 2 ministers who assured me that the IMA does not speak for all ministers and that what the IMA does is disgraceful. Amen.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The DNA Forum Part 2

Two nights ago at the DeSoto Hilton about 50 people showed up to hear what candidates for Sheriff, District Attorney, Superior Court Judge, and County Commission Chairman had to say concerning taxation and public safety.  Yesterday I wrote about two of those races and now I will address the other two.

District Attorney Spencer Lawton announced his decision to step down after a very lengthy tenure and that led to a very crowded race of 4 people. The July primary left two men standing, David Lock and Larry Chislom.

If I were asked to sum up the difference between these two candidates I would say this: David Lock represents the status quo and Larry Chisolm represents change.

I don't know but to me it seems that David Lock came out the earliest (April) and wrapped himself in the blanket of Spencer Lawton. He was perceived as the heir apparent to Spencer Lawton. He piled on his closeness and fondness for his boss and never missed the opportunity to espouse what a great DA Spencer was.

Well at this forum, that all seemed to be forgotten, no make that thrown overboard. Lock fidgeted with trying to explain how he had wanted to try different things over the last 10 years but according to Lock, Spencer "was the boss." What are we talking about here? We are talking about using a more modern approach to indictments and prosecutions. An approach with a filter that sifts out who are really worthy of full force prosecution and those who may benefit from alternative prosecutions. Who would be recommended for monitoring and who would not. Who would be given plea deals and who would not. That sort of attorney trial stuff.

At one point, Lock said Spencer just didn't want to do anything he (Lock) wanted to try. And at this point I had my doubts about working for anyone who stifles innovation and pushes back advances so doggedly to preserve the status quo. Personally, I'd find another boss or go it alone. I know one thing, I wouldn't be wrapping myself around the mantel of tired regime that keep me from achieving the changes I believed in.

Soft spoken and very articulate, Larry Chislom seems to want to do all the things that Lock wishes he had done but couldn't because of Spencer. Larry seems to get it. He knows that the schools, parents and business community all determine to some extent just how busy the DA will be. He gets it that those institutions play a factor in how full the jail is. And best of all, he wants them to be accountable for it. Now that sounds right to me. If this community had more accountability, criminal justice and public safety would be better off.

Pete Liakakis will tell you in an instant that he inherited a 5 million dollar budget shortfall 4 years ago when he and his "Team" took office. He blames me for that. He is correct in that prior years delinquent property taxes were mistakenly applied twice. What Pete won't tell you is that the budgeted amounts of revenue for LOST (5th penny sales tax which goes into the M&O budget) for the same budget year, FY04/05, was greater than what we had budgeted. Ironically or providentially (take your pick) the extra LOST money was almost exactly equal to the shortfall from prior years delinquent property taxes applied twice. I knew we had an excellent chance to have the budget balance because we were looking at the immediate prior quarters LOST projected vs actual (actual was outpacing projected very nicely) and thus we would end up either balanced or with a surplus.

Pete you see, ran with the budget shortfall story and raised taxes in 2005. This was something he felt he could get away with but it was something he had never done before. When the Certified Annual Comprehensive Report for FY 04/05 was released, sure enough the county had a surplus revenue in M&O of 6 million dollars. Presto. Shazam. Pow. Did Pete refund the extra money from his needless millage increase? No. He spent it on the CIP fund.

What Pete Liakakis won't tell you is now Chatham County is experiencing the worst budget crises in 70 years. And it's not going to get better for several years on the short side, and 4-6 years on the outside. We are not talking about 4 or 5 million we are looking at 30-40 million. The M&O shortfall will be around 15 million of that 30 million. That's what I said Tuesday night anyway and Pete would not comment on it except to say "things are tight right now."

That's like finding yourself in ICU and someone saying you're just having a bad day. 

Meanwhile back at the DNA forum, I pointed out that in the past 4 years a few examples of Liakakis spending:

1) Commissioners flew to Hawaii for a conference
2) Pete approved $25,000 for a one night "cocktail party" on Hutchinson Island for INC Magazine
3) $75,000 for 32 county employees to have personal trainers, dietitians and 3 custom meals prepared for them each day to improve their general heath

Pete responded by pulling out a 1961 SMN article that reported his involvement with a Civil Defense Program for Chatham County. Ah, are we talking about the cold war? Indeed. I guess Pete's point was he has been around for a while "helping" the community.

When asked what we could do to adjust for the declining local economy, I said we should look at going to a 4 day work week, stopping take home car privileges for non emergency workers, using impact fees on new construction, and getting all the new homes constructed on the tax digest the year they are supposed to be paying taxes (while they are for sale) not the year they are sold to first time buyers.

Pete's only cost savings comment was that he recently drove by a county building at night and saw that the lights were on so he asked that a timer be installed. That's good Pete.

With regard to future SPLOST referendums, I opined that they were doomed to fail unless the county commission begins to put important and popular projects on the list. Things like a real county wide mass transit system, curbside recycling capital investments for unincorporated county residents, bike lanes and context sensitive design projects.

Pete pumped up SPLOST saying how fortunate we were to be able to put a new roof on the aquatic center this year (that would be the second roof in 10 years Pete).

I reminded Pete that the Truman Linear Bike Trail was a 1998 SPLOST project that was fully funded and was to be a 4 mile bike trail connecting Daffin Park to Lake Mayer and 10 years later the county had only managed to build 1/4 mile of trail.

All in all, Pete was Pete and I was my usual critical self pointing out the failures in county management and effectiveness. I did offer solutions but no matter how you slice it, whoever represents us for the next 4 years is in for one tough time. I just don't think Pete realizes it.

My bottom line is this: If you want the status quo for the next 4 years you vote for the incumbents. Maybe their records and intransigence is appealing to you. Maybe not. I personally believe we are seeing the start to the end of a dynasty - and the beginnings of the next epoch in public policy and leadership for Chatham County. The State of Chatham is beginning to thaw.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Excuses or Realities? A Matter for Voters

Last night the Downtown Neighborhood Association held its Candidates Forum and they did a fine job. Columnist Bill Dawers from SMN tossed questions to the incumbents and challengers. The one thing that struck me as key between all incumbents is when asked what they would do to improve their areas of operations, they all said the same thing, people need to know I can't do anything about that because.... 

Lets start with Judge Brannen. When his challenger, Gwen Forston Waring made reference to her goal of stopping the revolving door of justice, Brannen responded by saying he sends convicted people to state prison by the boat load - but Governor Purdue lets them out early and sends them back to our community. Further, the Judge says that Purdue doesn't even tell us when he lets them out early so when they revolve back to Savannah he is as shocked as anyone. It is clear there seems to be a correlation between length of service and the capacity to blame someone else, or, the longer you serve the less innovation you manifest.

While there may be some truth to this notion, the Judge missed Ms. Warings point that "more effective sentencing  innovations coming from the other superior court judges" could make all the difference particularly in the long run.

Then came Sheriff Al St Lawrence. His opponent did not show up but then never accepted the invitation to begin with either. Oh well. At these forums, questions keep coming up about jail over crowding which drives the need for more very expensive jail expansion. What I keep hearing from this salty old school career politician is, "I ain't gonna tell you again, I run a pre-trial facility and I got 1810...."  If I have heard that once I have heard it a hundred times. Al just seems to think his entire job is to keep people locked up. In my opinion that is the minimum a Sheriff should do.

I would think a smart sheriff would start asking and caring about why his jail is always full not just for the sake of those incarcerated but how about for the tax payers who have to pay through their teeth to keep building additional jail beds at a cost of $143,000 per bed? Hello, are you listening Al? I know it's late in the game and all but since you are "the highest law enforcement officer in the county" couldn't you use your position to put a little pressure on the others who actually do have some control over our crime levels? This would require a "proactive" and "integrated" approach to the problem.

Ergo: If schools would teach students (resulting in a higher graduation level than 50%), if the courts used more effective sentencing options earlier in first time offender cases, if the business community started paying people a real wage (hospitality industry are you listening?) and if parents would for God's sake start being parents for a change (that means first setting a good example, being home to help with homework, joining PTA) then we might one day stop building new jails. I'm sorry but Al St Lawrence just never modernized his thinking about jailing. It's not 1956 anymore Al and, yes, you run an extremely secure facility however taxpayers would like you to not lust over larger and larger jails. In fact, that should be somehow written into the job description for the next sheriff.

Tomorrow I will comment on the DA candidates and my close encounter with the anachronism, Pete Liakakis.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tom Barton Gets It Right & Why Doesn't Pete Liakakis Support Black Candidates In County Elections?

Editorial Page Editor from the Savannah Morning News, Tom Barton, was the guest speaker this past Saturday at the Chatham County Republican Party second Saturday breakfast. Tom was dressed comfortably, shorts, sandals, and red UGA golf shirt. Part of his message was chilling though clear... with this years dramatic decline in housing value across Chatham County, next year's county budget is going to be rough going. I hope Commissioner's Gellatly and Farrell were listening. Their Republican (sic) loyalty is with Democrat Pete Liakakis who raised property taxes in 2005 and then failed in 06, and 07 to roll the millage back 100% after revalue was calculated. (BTW that's called a backdoor property tax). Essentially, Dave, Pat, and Helen are all supporting a democrat in Pete Liakakis.

Well, I guess my support for Obama makes me a democrat in the wings but since Pete I hear is not supporting Obama, maybe that's the reason Dave, Pat, and Helen are supporting Pete? So if Pete is a closet Republican, that would explain why he is not supporting Larry Chislom, Mike Jones or Gewn Fortson Waring. Pete claims to be a man beloved by the black community and maybe he is but why doesn't he support black candidates? Pete you really need to explain this.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Declining Sales Prices

If anyone doubts that next year's tax digest will be down, read on. This year the tax digest went up 8% in value while many people believed Savannah Chatham was basically flat in value . Let's remember 2 things: First, the tax digest accounts for around 75% of all revenue coming into the county treasury, and secondly, that the value of any digest must be built on sales information from the PRIOR year.

Thus, this years 2008 tax digest was based on sales activity from 2007. The 2009 tax digest will be based on 2008 sales. Now let's take a look at some recent sales from today's Savannah Morning News "Property Transfers" keeping in mind that these sales and others like them will be what is used to figure next year's tax digest.

144 Rommell Avenue 2008 tax value = $161,500
Sales price = $135,000

Decline in value = 16.4%

152 Lewis Ave 2008 tax value = $382,000
Sales price = $259,000

Decline in value = 32%

116 Longwood Drive 2008 tax value $244,500
Sales price = $237,500

Decline in value = 3%

312 E Hall Street 2008 Tax value = $227,500
Sales price = $219,600

Decline in value = 3.5%

1601 E 51st Street 2008 tax value = $255,500
Sale price = $246,000

Decline in value = 3.7%

I have not cherry picked low sales, this is what you too will find should you look. Bill Dawers has written about this in his City columns and the sales numbers confirm his theory.

Essentially, what this means is that the next commission term, 09-012 will be facing declining revenue and since Pete Liakakis raised your property taxes in 2005, you can pretty well expect him to do it again. This of course would not be necessary if Pete would take a position and lead on Impact Fees on new construction.

I don't know about you, but if on one hand I have to choose between major property tax increases, or, my government could choose to assess a one time fee on new home construction paid for by the buyer who wanted to move here, I choose Impact Fees.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pete Liakakis: Please Stop Playing Politics With Public Safety

Tomorrow it starts (8/29/08). I have decided to run a series of large ads in the Savannah Morning News to help explain the need for better public policy. There is no doubt that Pete Liakakis is standing in the way of better public policy and tomorrows ad will  explain how Pete is holding onto CNT as some bargaining chip with the City of Savannah. 

Playing politics with public safety is wrong and our community suffers while Pete schemes. Pete refuses to honor the 2003 police merger agreement which calls for CNT to be at theMetropolitan Police Department. The Chamber of Commerce also stands behind the agreement to transfer CNT as outlined in the 03 merger.

Pete wants CNT run by a bureaucrat, the county manager, while the experts say we can accomplish much more in fighting drugs in our schools and community by allowing the merged police department to use this vital tool, CNT, effectively.

Pete is acting like a King when he should be acting like a leader who wants the best for Chatham County. I will work hard to build a consensus on the commission (just like I did in 2002-2005) and we will do what Pete refuses to do.

Playing politics with public safety is bad public policy. Please join me and 4 other candidates as we begin to tell the truth and take a stand for better public policy.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pete Liakakis Will Raise Property Taxes (Part 3)

When this commission took office 3.5 years ago, the entire county budget was around $350,000,000. Today right now the current budget is $502,000,000. That's unbelievable and any incumbent candidate who calls themselves a Republican ought to be ashamed. Oh I know you didn't vote to raise our property taxes in 2005, it was Chairman Pete Liakakis who cast the deciding vote.

What these Republicans, Stone, Gellatly, Farrell and Kicklighter have done is vote for the $152,000,000 in new spending that ran the cost of government up to its current $502,000,000. They can not have it both ways, "I've never voted to raise taxes" gets zero credibility after they admit to spending $152,000,000 additional each year. So if you enjoy higher property taxes and less in return from county services, then your choices should be to return the incumbents.

Consider what has happened to our economy in 2008. Locally and statewide sales tax collections are down 15-17% - this effects LOST and SPLOST money budgeted higher but will certainly be less. Next, since 75% of the entire county budget is from property taxes (which were increased by this commission) and that the average property has declined in value by 5-10% this year, what do you think is in store for next years budget?

Can you say "oh no, please don't raise may property taxes again." Ask your commissioner what he or she has against impact fees because impact fees are the only way out of this nightmare unless you are willing to accept somewhere in the neighborhood of a 3 mil property tax increase.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Campaign Signs Always Say Something

Team Chatham, (those candidates on the county commission or involved in other races who announced early this year that they would cross party lines and support one another), has one thing in common. No I'm not referring to the obvious special interest connections they share, I'm talking about their political campaign signs.

Liakakis, Gellatly, Stone, Farrell, and St. Lawrence all have 4x4 signs planted announcing their re-election bids but the glaring common denominator is that not a single one of them say what the candidate stands for.  No accomplishments, no idea about key issues, nada nothing. There's a lonely star thrown in here and there to break up the monotony but essentially these 5 candidates evidently have no record they want to herald and no new ideas to offer voters. Pete's signs are the only signs that have a phrase: Proven.   Trusted. I could have fun with substituting two other words but since I'm a gentleman and because politics should always be policy based, I won't go there.

Pat Farrell's signs are big on green and I'm sure that's an Irish illusion because it can't be an environmental choice. No big surprise that Chu's gas stations on Wilmington Island and canopy tree cutting commercial project on Johnny Mercer all have, or will have, large Farrell signs (follow the money, not the sawdust ).

Dave Gellatly's signs say "Re Elect" and that's it. Re elect what? Why Re elect Dave? After 8 years shouldn't you have to have some accomplishment to point to? If the number of nails in campaign signs wins elections, Dave has it made! How about: Hurricane Prepared - that would have at least said something about the candidate.

Miss Helen Stone's signs have the strongest graphics and composition. Plenty of free space there to trot out a few accomplishments but none are seen. Even a simple line like, "I listen" would have been helpful. Or, "E" for Whitefield would have been appropriate.

Sheriff Al St Lawrence's signs take angles to a new height. But that's it. No copy about the new jail, no words of wisdom about prisoner security, just the obligatory "Re Elect" slogan. "Serving Chatham County since the mid 80's" would have done well. Or, What Constitutional Officers want, they get."

Pete Liakakis's signs are also void of accreditation or accomplishments. I thought of several appropriate improvements over "Proven.  Trusted." How about, Raised Taxes Once, Raise Them Again" or, Keep CNT disconnected!  Or, Why Have Impact Fees When We Can Tax Ourselves!

Now I know many of you candidates read my blog and yes I'm poking a little fun at your signs. You can do the same, I can take it. But I want you to know I have no issues with you as people, I respect you and some of you I consider associates. Politics shouldn't be about personalities, it has to be policy driven and policy based.  Read my signs: John McMasters/New Leadership/Better Public Policy/ No New Taxes.  Now let's write some meaningful copy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Congratulations City of Savannah - Hello Chatham County

The City of Savannah has shown strong leadership with its' environmental policies. The goals are there and so is the commitment to actually do it. I am very proud and want to thank the council members for their leadership. The ideas coming out of the city should illustrate to the county commission you can take action and move ahead without endless study groups (CEF) and idle rhetoric.

There are many candidates this county election cycle who have sound principal and smart ideas for a cleaner and better Chatham County. It takes better public policy to change how government works and does things and the city of Savannah is now a role model for all of Chatham County. 

Curbside recycling is just a start, the city has so much more on their to do list. Chatham County thinks somehow the county is different from the city - they are wrong. People want curbside recycling, bike paths, sidewalks, canopy tree protection and reduced carbon emissions.

Pay attention to the discussion coming in September and October from the many candidates who are running on positive and inspiring issues and ideas. You will be impressed and delighted by new views and new strengths.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

AirTran bids Chatham Farewell: Rice Hope Picks Up

I hated to see yet another economic nail hammered into in the Chatham County coffin. Wal Mart closes down an 800,000 sq ft warehouse while another 150,000 sq ft built for another company will not be opened (SRS) and now AirTran leaves Savannah/Chatham.

The Savannah Morning News is doing a wonderful job of artificially propping up the bad business news by serving up a happy Savannah Port story every 4 days (next port story due day after tomorrow). They have also found another business sector to adulate and it's home builders. Sure, sales are non existent, foreclosures are kicking in and prices are falling so what's a newspaper to do? Yesterday it was Beacon builders novel idea to build smaller homes (that means less green space and more profit). Today the newspaper sort of balances that with a sad story about Rice Hope subdivision (in Kicklighter's district I believe) where so many unsold and foreclosed properties exist that the developer doesn't even bother to cut the grass or maintain the grounds. Give credit to the homeowners who are doing it themselves.

While the good people living and raising their children at Rice Hope spent their weekend cleaning up the builders neglected properties, Lamar Smith (a builder who is developing Parkside neighborhood at Rice Hope) was hosting a breakfast and tour of his newest project for the Greater Savannah Homebuilders Association and local Realtors. As one of the touring Realtors put it, "Long Point, Henderson, Southbridge - all these subdivisions took forever to get off the ground." 

Talk about irony.

Post Post:Thursday 8/21/08

I received an email from Lamar Smith who kindly pointed out that his project at Rice Hope called Park Side is keeping up their end of the bargain and working hard to make a wonderful project work. I could not discern from the SMN article exactly who was responsible for what out at Rice Hope so the confusion was entirely mine. Lamar did agree that there are problems at Rice Hope but they are not within Park Side. I plan on visiting Rice Hope and taking a look for myself. I'll let you what I find.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pete Liakakis will raise property taxes (Part 2)

When Lynn Pitts, the Senior Vice President of SEDA (Savannah Economic and Development Authority) says, "I think everyone is aware that the economy has slowed...... we know things are going to improve at some point but how long the slowdown will last is still anyone's guess." it sure makes you wonder how Chatham County will balance the 2009 budget.

Two major companies have changed course about doing business in Chatham County. WalMart is closing down an 800,000 square foot distribution warehouse in SEDA land (Crossroads Business Park) which it has occupied since 2001 and National Retail Systems 147,000 square foot distribution center will not be occupied (Ribbon Cutting ceremonies happened back in February 2008).

Then there's a real estate auction going on this weekend out at Tybee. A failing local real estate market and impending foreclosuers has generated 30 beach properties to be auctioned off to the highest bidders.

The Tax Assessors office has been busy sending out 21 day change of value notices to hundreds of people who have appealed their 2008 values, REDUCING the values. I know because we got two in the mail. Seems the value Chatham County put on the properties this year won't hold up under appeal when sales comps for like properties are compared.

Then of course the State of Georgia last week announced a reduction in money due Chatham County, about $7,000,000.

What this all means is next year's Chatham County budget will be very short on revenue. That means only two things; either we have to cut services or raise property taxes (there's a third choice and that's impact fees on new construction but does anyone really see this commission going against the Chamber of Commerce?) . Sorry to say raising property taxes is what the current commission has done (2005) and will do again next year. It is the hands of one man's vote, Chairman Pete Liakakis.

The vote will come down as a 4/4 split and Pete will have to decide it. I don't think people will be happy after Pete casts his vote. They will open their Georgia Power bill, their grocery expenses will be up, their Chevron/Texaco bill doubled and then there's their Chatham County tax bill. Man, it's going to be ugly.

Pete, you should have put some money aside in the boom years 2004-2007 instead of spending it all. Pete, please explain why Chatham County has LESS in reserve today than when you took office 4 years ago? Why did you support Al St. Lawrence's $110,000,000 jail when the real and accurate cost should have been half that? Voters want to know.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Project DeRenne Gets Off The Ground With a Good Start

Last night I attended the first Project DeRenne public meeting. Connecting Savannah was the prior study name and after great expense to taxpayers, little was accomplished to advance the widening hopes of the commercial interests along the corridor (mainly Memorial and Candler hospitals growth).

From a roll call basis, I should point out that Pete Liakakis arrived about midway through the discussions, basically very late. I did see Karen Grainey who arrived early. She is a candidate for the county commission 6th district but her opponent, incumbent Dave Gellatly, was a no show. Helen Stone was there and so were new alderpersons Larry Stuber and Mary Ellen Sprauge. Larry lives in the affected area and knows engineering and committee process, the people along and around DeRenne are lucky to have him actively participating in Project DeRenne.

It's a good thing that Connecting Savannah failed. In my opinion, that is the principal reason the widening of DeRenne has not happened. It's because citizens (called stakeholders) did participate in the lengthy Connecting Savannah study process. Further, when the Connecting results were finally published and advocated widening DeRenne, those same people said, "wait a minute, what meetings did you participate in because these results don't accurately reflect what the study group concluded." Nice try CUTS, but spin alone will not trump citizen involvement.

Let's hope that this time with Project DeRenne that citizens input is given the weight it deserves and I believe it will be. Judging from last nights first meeting, it was clear that widening is not a forgone conclusion. In fact, at my table of 8 people, 7 out of 8 said traffic/congestion is manageable the way it is - especially when the alternative is taking peoples homes and widening to 7 seven lanes. I looked around the room at the "masts" where each table of 8 people where asked as their last task to place seven cards in order of most important to least important, most important on top and least important at the bottom. The traffic card never made it to the top of any of the masts I saw, it was either at the middle or below middle. What was on top of virtually every mast? Respecting and preserving neighborhoods.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Why Are People Moving Out of Chatham? Why Do We Lose Major Companies to Other Counties?

UGA demographer Doug Bachtel recently issued a report on the changing demographics of Chatham County (you can read the entire story at empire/8/9/09).

The paper writes, "In recent years more people have moved out of Chatham County and into neighboring counties. Most of these people have been white, with more education with higher incomes, he said." Futher, "Chatham County and Savannah are not growing like they should, people are moving to the suburbs. This issue is not going to go away. Once it starts, it's really hard to stop."

I don't think it's limited to whites and you must wonder what the reason is that so many people, family people black and white, are moving out? I  will say that the number one reason is the school system. The school system is also the reason that many companies choose not to locate here. Company executives have to ask what kind of school system is available to our employee's dependents? Is it a good school system, is it achieving at par with other school systems? Is is safe? Will we be able to attract and retain our workforce based on the local schools? It is the answers to questions like these that cause companies to look elsewhere and local people to move out of Chatham.

According to Bachtel, "It's going to take a total community-wide effort to improve the quality of life in Chatham County." Amen.

I would like to add a further definition to the demographers solution and that's the specific issue of achieving better public policy from our local governments: county, city and schools. Improving quality of life is a goal, not a plan to improve it.

The next posts I make will be about specific public policy ideas/changes that I believe are the ways and means to improving quality of life in our community. I look forward to hearing from you as to what your thoughts and ideas are on these important questions.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What Commissioners Can Do, and What They Don't Do

I wanted to tell you about two recent experiences involving the county which tell me that there is much room for improvement when it comes to taxpayer/county customer service.

Now I know Helen Stone recently wrote a nice letter to the editor of the Savannah Morning News carefully explaining that she and the commission only appoint the 5 member Board of Assessors. The Tax Assessors office is not directly under the spell of the county commission so if your property taxes went way up this year (as most people's did) Helen can't help you.

First experience: of the properties we own, this year we received one change of value notice: last year the value was $314,500 and this year (2008) it was going up to $554,500, a 43% increase in one year! This is a commercial apartment building so no Stephens Day freeze. Another property, a 3 unit apartment on E. Gwinnett went from $314,500 to $513,500, a 39% one year increase and no Stephens Day freeze BUT WE NEVER RECEIVED A CHANGE OF VALUE NOTICE FOR THIS PROPERTY. This had happened a few years ago so I knew to check the website and there it was, a major increase and no notice to the taxpayer! You can't appeal what you don't know about. NoT rolling back the millage is considered a BACKDOOR TAX so this makes for a DOUBLE SLAP IN THE FACE. Helen, if you want to do something helpful, you could look into this type of county error and find some solution.

Second experience: Good friends asked me to help them appeal their giant value increases and I said I would only I could not go to the scheduled hearing dates. I had a letter prepared on behalf of the owners and faxed it to the Board of Equalization on July 26, 2008. When I called to see if they had received it, they said NO. We took to the BOE the fax transmittal log print out from the fax machine from which the letter was sent showing on 7/26/08 at 2:15 p.m. a fax was sent to 912.447.4955, the BOE fax number and the report "result" said OK. They told us to forget it! They couldn't care less if an activity report confirms a fax sent to them or not, they pretty much said there's no possible way they could misplace an important document. Uh huh. Helen Stone might could look into this and at a minimum ask the BOE have a little courtesy and flexibility for the overly burdened Chatham County taxpayer.

Better yet, this year the commission could have rolled the millage rate back but instead this commission passed along to taxpayers a huge BACKDOOR TAX INCREASE. (Remember though, Pete Liakakis thinks he hasn't raised your taxes.)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Fish Rots From The Head Down: Pete's Admonition....

Yesterday I received a call from Pete Liakakis. It wasn't nice but he thought he was doing me a favor. Pete informed me that he was running a 'clean campaign.' I could tell from the comment there was an inference there that I was not running a 'clean campaign.' So I asked, "Pete is there something I've done or said thus far that you feel is 'dirty campaigning'? If so, I'd like to know."

And so out it came that yesterdays post, "Pete Liakakis will raise taxes" struck a nerve. After a 5 minute diatribe (some of which was in the third person), about how Pete had lead the charge to reduce the city millage rate back in the 1990's I asked, "What about 2005?" and "what are you going to do next year 2009?" Well, Pete says it was my fault he had to raise the millage rate in 2005, you know the 5 million budget shortfall story. And about next year's budget shortfall, Pete had no response.

Now this is where it gets really creepy. Pete tells me that "people have gone out to California (I moved from California 16 years ago) and they have collected "affidavits" about you John - about some real unpleasant behavior you've done John and like you know, I told then not to release it because you know, Pete doesn't play dirty politics." 

I immediately offered to meet Pete out at the Savannah Morning News so he could release whatever he or they have on me and get it over and done with. I'm sure there must be something bad in my past. (After concluding the conversation, I emailed the Savannah Morning News to inform them of Pete's warning to me and that they were welcome to follow up directly with Pete.)

Then I said, "Pete, this call is awfully strange. Let's see if I have this right: you are calling me about running clean campaigns and then you inform me that some unidentified third party which you evidently have some sway over, may or may not release something negative about my past (2 decades and beyond) and you claim you are running a "clean campaign?" Pleeeese.....

You know for a minute I honestly flashed back to 1971, the Nixon white house: G. Gordon Liddy, Jeb Magruder, John Mitchell, Bob Hadlerman,  and John Ehrlichman. It was ugly then, and now. 

I will make this observation based on this phone call: the current leadership of the county commission lives in the past and refuses to look forward to promote better public policy for the citizens of Chatham County. The whole Team of Nine is actually the Gang of Nine and they are all  about preserving their power.  Where's the innovation, where's the progress over the last 4 years? We all know that their spending has increased 142 million dollars a year over 2004 spending (41% increase) and they have less in reserve today than when I left office. 

The leader of The Team Of Nine is out of step and should be replaced this November. Does anyone want more Richard Nixon like antics? It's time to move on and do the people's work.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Pete Liakakis will raise property taxes

Pete Liakakis will raise your taxes. It's a guarantee you will be writing larger property tax checks next year and the year after. Pete loves to say he never voted to raise your taxes but he has and will do it again. In 2005 Pete cast the deciding vote to raise the county millage rate. So much for saying Pete has never raised taxes.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, the 09, 010 and 011 county budgets will fall well short of need and ol Pete will again be the deciding vote and raise your taxes again, and again. You will hear all about how bad the economy is, how sales tax revenue continues to come in under projections. Expect some sophomoric comment like, "We didn't want to do this, but we have no choice."

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. The commission has the option to institute impact fees on new construction. Fees that would be paid by people who are moving to Chatham from somewhere else. Considering who is supporting Pete, builders and developers, there is zero chance to avoid a tax increase to existing citizens because Pete will not bite the hand that feeds him and keeps him in power. No it's not the voters, it's the kingmakers who want to avoid better public policy like impact fees on new construction. Without impact fees, the builder gets to sell his or her product at market price while everywhere all around Chatham County new construction sells with impact fees as part of the sales price. Can you say, "cha-ching."

Impact fees will generate between 30-35 million dollars a year, all paid by those who want to take up residence in Chatham County. Why that's enough to actually reduce our millage rate and give everyone a nice size tax reduction. Why haven't we done this sooner? Ask the chairman.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

It's a Three Way Race In the First District

Things just got more interesting in the county commission first district race. David Osborne has been certified as an official Independent Candidate after successfully collecting the needed 5% of registered voters in the first district by petition. David Osborne's candidacy was supported by 1430 signatures of people living in the district.

To my knowledge, David Osborne is the first Independent candidate for Chatham County Commissioner to ever qualify through petition. This is a milestone as the two party system essentially tries to shut out everything but Democrats and Republicans. Not any longer.

Could this be a turning point? Are people just fed up with national partisan wrangling? Perhaps as we have seen here in Chatham County, when the opposite happens and Democrats support Republicans, and Republicans support Democrats - people won't buy THE TEAM approach to government. Is this race the tipping point where 'The Team" concept will not work?

Turning point or tipping point? When elected officials band together to protect themselves, they are effectively trying to suppress all competition in an attempt to avoid having to explain their records. It's a power play designed to protect their positions and continue the policies that benefit the fewest people. Wait and watch the Chatham County 09 and 010 budgets which will be  flat, and 5-4 votes will raise everyone's property taxes.

It is said that politics is a messy process a lot like watching sausage being made but here in this years county commission elections we have the opposite - no harm no foul, everything is ideal because we all "get along" mantra. " 

So there you have it, two extremes of the political spectrum. At the state and national level it's partisan in fighting which gets so bitter that none or precious little of the people's work  gets done (I point you to last year's legislative session), and on the end of the scale at the local level we hear, "we don't ever disagree because everything is purrrfect so re-elect us." 

Somehow, someway, we have managed to find ourselves somewhere in between the Roman Coliseum and Camelot. What's a gladiator or Knight to do? Will the people give thumbs down, or thumbs up? If locally we believe in mythic allegories, perhaps the King Auther story will resonate. Who knows, though a three way race in the First District between a Democrat, Republican and an Independent....... promises to be interesting.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Post Primary Thoughts: hi jinks, hypocrisy and higher taxes

The July 15th primary has come and gone and I am pleased to be the Republican candidate for Chatham County Chairman as that allows me an opportunity to carry forward my ideas about better public policy for our county.

I am most grateful to have the support of sensible Republicans who believe in lower taxes, more efficient government and better public safety. Who did not support me was the far right and special interest characters of the Chatham County Republican Party. I'm sure come November they will be voting for Pete anyway. In the short course they supported James Dewberry in an attempt to punish me for speaking out for sensible and improved public policy: impact fees on new construction, changing CAT buses from big to smaller and from diesel to smarter fuels, and working with the City of Savannah to support curbside recycling in the county.

Instead of picking apart reasonable and now very common policies (now routine in other communities and counties across the state of Georgia), they should have paid  attention to my long standing position that Chatham County property taxes are too high, not uniform between like kind classes and unfair to most property owners. Plus, they might want to think what is in store for the Chatham County budgets in 09, 010, 011? The tax digest will be flat or down (inflation included) and they won't have a fifth vote to stop a tax increase. Or do they enjoy being a minority on the commission so Pete will be the deciding vote to increase taxes?

Some of them also went a little nutty because back in January I made a comment to Larry Peterson of the Savannah Morning News that I was considering voting for Barack Obama. Many of the same CCRP individuals are the ones who sent me the emails over and over again about how Obama is a Muslim, won't salute the flag and is otherwise an evil person. Please.

They are also unnerved because some of the people who I met and worked with last year in the city recycling petition campaign, have decided to enter the races of sitting republicans commissioners. To them I say, this is America and those who want to be candidates have just as much right as anyone else to run. I did not "put them in the race." They saw the need to improve public policy at the county level and made up their minds to offer their own ideas. Sorry that some in CCRP feel I don't meet the CCRP country club standards, get over it.

Too and also, may I remind everyone that in January it was this commission that stood up together in Johnson Square, Kicklighter, Gellatly, Stone and Farrell (all Republicans) and announced that they would be running as a team, a conglomerate of Democrats and Republicans pledging their unwavering support for one another in this year's 2008 election.

It takes a lot of nerve to complain about another person who wishes to enter the election process after you have stood toe to toe and shoulder to shoulder in an obvious attempt to stifle any opposition and avoid any discussion of your record in this year's election cycle.

So perhaps we have cleared the air a little bit on the recent primary race, I hope so. The back story is what it is, convolution and frustration indeed, perhaps better discussion and better public policy will emerge in part because of it, not despite it.

PS: My advice to CCRP? Next election - recruit a Republican candidate for chairman that you approve of. (Kicklighter and Gellatly each have over 8 years service on the commission so why didn't CCRP encourage either of them to move up?)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Dewberry Ducks Out on Candidate Forum

Two weeks ago my opponent, James Dewberry, agreed to a candidate forum on July 8, on Whitemarsh Island at the Frank Murray Community Center. Now he has backed out. Worse, he states in a blog posting on that he never accepted the invitation to this event. 

According to the president of the Sierra Club Coastal Group, Steve Willis, Dewberry agreed to attend and participate as a candidate during a phone call over two weeks ago that Willis made to Dewberry inviting him to the event. 

I received a call from Willis also inviting me to participate at the event and I was told by Willis that Dewberry agreed to be there as a candidate. I accepted and I will be there on July 8 to answers questions and discuss my own environmental public policy ideas.

I don't know who is advising James Dewberry. More often than not, he has a strange view on the issues so I think he marches to his own drummer. For example, he calls Starbucks, "Starboogers." Or, if you disagree with James Dewberry, he calls you a "dumb - dumb". His two favorite words which he uses freely to counter anyone who disagrees with him are, "idiot" and "fool." He routinely insults people with his weird choice of words. During the city elections last Fall, he said nothing about saving the city's resource recovery facility (the incinerator) and did not oppose curbside recycling. Now that he is running for Chairman of the County Commission, he believes burning our trash and recyclables is better than recycling.

In light of Dewberry's routine flip flops and bizarre nature, it does not surprise me that he folds and backs out of a commitment. There is much to be discussed in this election and voters need to know about the candidates and where they stand on important public policy issues. As a Republican candidate for Chairman of the County Commission, I welcome questions from all community groups including the Sierra Club. 

With regard to better environmental policy for Chatham County I support:

• Curbside recycling for unincorporated Chatham County residents

• Phasing the CAT bus fleet from diesel to natural gas

• Developing local policy to encourage more fuel efficient vehicles in both the           county fleet and within the public sector

• An ordinance to require a minimum level of project L.E.E.D.'s certification in the   design and construction of all new hotels and all county building projects

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Boardwalk Along Abercorn Street

Abercorn Street. It is a long road that starts on Bay Street and ends in another county. Savannah's two major shopping malls are situated along this street and there are hundreds of businesses which are adjacent Abercorn or one or two streets away. Places like Fresh Market, Publix, Garden State Tile, John B. Rourke, Mid Town Deli and so on.

I travel this street every day by car. I live only 3 miles away from the stores I just listed and yet if I wanted to ride my bike (save some money, pollute less) I would be taking a very circuitous route to get there (safety is my concern).

Let's say I wanted to walk there. Once out of the historic district, there isn't a sidewalk to be found.

What should be clear to everyone is that we have not planned our county's pedestrian and bicycle access very well. We built everything around our automobiles. I understand that but it is time to correct this.

I will champion the design and construction of a wide bicycle and walking path that will enable people to safely transit through Mid Town and the Southside from anywhere along Abercorn. It will be lighted. It will be protected and I am sure it will be well received and an added benefit to thousands of tax payers.

Think of Santa Monica's boardwalk where people walk, skate, ride and roll all the way up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. What a concept. We can do it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Reassessments = Big Bucks

Did you get your reassessment notice from Chatham County? We did and one property (4 unit rental) was increased 40%. The 2007 value was $331,500, the new 2008 value is $554,500. The math is quite simple:

New City, County, and School annual increase in taxes (above last year's) is $3,768

Monthly property tax increase is $314

Divided by 4 apartments is $78 extra property tax per month

So the average apartment rental monthly rate before the County's new higher value was $800. Now it will become $878

I ask you, who is driving up the cost in the rental housing market? Specifically it is the Board of Assessors and indirectly it's Pete Liakakis because Pete is the Chairman and he and the commissioners appoint the 5 members of the BOA. 

Forget that the property value is set above fair market value, disregard the fact that the Savannah real estate market has been totally FLAT over the last 12 months, don't begin considering the $54,000,000 Savannah River Landing Tax Allocation district Pete Liakakis supported and got passed and please don't ask Pete why the size and cost of Chatham County has mushroomed under his term.

The facts speak for themselves. Pete Liakakis has not made more bike lanes and bike paths a priority. He has done nothing but ignore our CAT system (declining ridership increasing costs) and as to possibly supporting curbside recycling for unincorporated Chatham County he doesn't like the idea. Why? No money for it. 

Pete, if you are reading this please reread the first paragraph. You have a lot more money from me and many others. Where's it going Pete?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Hit and Run: Bike Lanes Should Have Been Built A Long Time Ago

Two bicyclists were riding back home to Savannah from Tybee this past weekend and someone in a white Dodge Ram pickup hit them and drove off, seriously injuring both bicyclists. They were bicycling on U.S. 80, the only road out to the beaches of Tybee. There is no bicycle lane. That's not right.

One of the bicyclists, Matt Barrow ,is one of my tenants,  the other his girlfriend Stephanie Chiang. Matt is a nice young man, honest, forthright, and courteous. He also works hard and pays his rent right on time, he and his girlfriend didn't deserve this. Matt is doing a lot right like running a small business and reducing emissions and congestion by using his bike whenever possible.

The commissioner for this district, the 4th, is Pat Farrell. Pat doesn't think much about the environment (see my post on Islands Town Hall Meeting). He is also one of the commissioners who flew to Hawaii in 2005 at taxpayer expense right after being elected. He also routinely takes credit for projects (Islands police precinct, Charlie Brooks Park renovation) which were planned and funded and started under the prior commission 2000 -2004. I guess if a project finishes while Pat is in office, he likes to take credit for it.

There is plenty of money in SPLOST and other accounts that should be used to build bike ways and bike paths. But I have heard nothing from Pat Farrell in his 3.5 years on the commission about supporting bike paths and bike ways. Nothing. Of course he doesn't live on Willington Island or Tybee Island.

Pat Farrell has competition this November because he has sat silent while many people in district 4 have called for more bike paths and bike lanes. Voters this November will have choices and those voters who are not content because of higher property taxes and an inability to plan for the future of Chatham County will make a choice: the status qou, or, intelligent planning and that might very well include bike lanes. 

Friday, May 30, 2008

Yikes! Is This A Tipping Point For Mass Transit?

Think about it. People everywhere are talking about the need for mass transit. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Network News (ABC NBC CBS), folks in Savannah's coffee houses, office workers, mom's in Forsyth Park.... the whole world has awakened to the subject. Well, I guess $4 a gallon gas is having an effect in more ways than one.

I have written about a few of my CAT board/County Commission experiences from 02, 03, and 04. What I have said is true and anyone who was there is welcome to correct my observations if they feel that what I have described is inaccurate.

Fast forward to today. The County Commissioners, led by Pete Liakakis Chairman of  CAT, have basically failed to recognize the advantage and positive potential of a county wide mass transit system. They have done nothing in their term to draw more ridership, improve the system and plan for the future. Bottom line, they have ignored mass transit while energy costs skyrocketed. Worse, they appointed a person to head up the system who only a few years ago voted for years to keep the system in the hands of First Transit. Someone who fought tooth and nail for a Transit Center location that nobody favored except him, his cohorts on the CAT board and a small handful of vocal riders. The CAT board was off track then and is now it is in the ditch. You would think they would not repeat their mistakes. 

Hope exists this year because we have reached a "tipping point" in our thinking as a community in the need and value of a healthy mass transit system. We might expect to see a "bottom up" transformation of transit planning, a consumer/voter revolt because nothing has been done to build a proper and successful CAT system. People will soon be hearing from multiple candidates for county commission who appear to be committed to quality of life issues. Issues not only surrounding mass transit, but policy change that includes canopy tree protection, curbside recycling for unincorporated Chatham County and far more bike ways and bike paths. That all sounds exciting to me, I hope it does to you.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

P.S. An Appropriate Day To Reflect On The Need For Mass Transit

What in the world was up with traffic in Savannah today? Something was fouled up on Bay Street as all cars and TRUCK (as in SEMI-TRUCKS) were being funneled off of Bay and down Price Street. I watched a dozen big rigs just about jackknife trying to negotiate the east turn down Broughton Street. None were able to make it. Same deal for the big rigs at Oglethorpe.

At around noon I was driving to WTOC off Chatham Parkway (nice new traffic light by the way and zero trees lost) only to find I16 East bound totally stopped. All vehicles were being diverted off at Chatham Parkway to who knows where. Later this afternoon I ran out to the southside and Abercorn was messed up (orange cones everywhere) and traffic was miserably bad, worse than the normal Abercorn bad. (Just wait until the Truman Parkway dumps into Abercorn at Home Depot!)

I thought about how nice it would be to have some form of mass transit in place in Chatham County. You know like the Green Line, or Bart, or Marta? We had better start thinking about a light rail metro type line that would speed across the county in both an east west line, and a north south line. If this were a reality instead of a concept, this mornings headline, "Derenne Study Underway" wouldn't have been printed.

For the pessimists out there, what was happening today on our streets will be commonplace before you know it. Think about it, $4 a gallon gas, hours just wasted idling in traffic. To know that this County Commission hasn't even paid attention to our small and limited CAT bus system, is not very reassuring. In fact, it is another example of the limited vision and substandard work product of the TEAM COMMISSION over the past 3.5 years. What exactly have they done besides exalt one another?

I guess you can call the Chairman anytime, at least he says you can, but don't ask for more than a pothole fix because anything beyond that would be idle dreaming.

Part 3: Mass Transportation "It all depends on..."

After 3 months passed and after the money had been approved for 200 new CAT bus stop shelters, I made it a point to inquire about how CAT was doing with the implementation of the new shelters. I probably sounded a bit like a little child on a road trip, "Are we there yet?" "Are we there yet?"

No we weren't was the constant answer from the Director of CAT. After 6 months had passed I grew frustrated and basically said look you have had plenty of time, this board and commission has a right to know where the system is on building 200 new shelters. I was assured that we would receive a detailed report at the next CAT board meeting. Fine.

Thirty days later show time came and we were informed that around 50 shelters had been erected and another 50 were "close to being ready." There was a lot of excuses about how the city permitting process was slowing things down. But something caught my attention. I don't remember exactly what it was. Maybe it was the way the CAT Director was avoiding eye contact with me, maybe it was the way he buried his head looking down into the staff report while he read it. Then it dawned on me.

I asked a point blank question, "How many of these 50 recently erected CAT shelters were 'New' shelters?" The director replied, "All of them." I followed up with, "By new, what I mean is how many are now in place that were not there at all 6 months ago."

Well, I was told the truth but it seemed I just hadn't been asking the right questions. Something like 10 shelters were new in the sense that no shelter existed at a given stop 6 months ago and 40 were new shelters that were "replacing an existing shelter." The director sort of shrugged his shoulders and said, "They are all new."

Next I got a long winded explanation about what bad condition the 40 replaced shelters were in, how down right dangerous those shelters were. Ahmm... yea but we said we wanted to increase our total number of shelters.

The post script to this semantic dust up was that it was much easier to replace existing shelter because you didn't have to go through permit process and then poor concrete and and and...

It was a learning moment for a new County Commissioner. Thereafter, I began to think very carefully before I asked a question and I had to contort my thinking so as to imagine every possible alternative meaning to any question I asked. It was an invaluable lesson and another example of how CAT management selectively processed CAT board directives. And we wonder why the system is failing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Part 2: Mass Transportation "Gimmie Shelter"

There was a constant struggle on the CAT board in 2003 and I was proud to be one of those pushing for a refocusing of the CAT mission. I had always been sympathetic and supportive to calls for a bigger service area and better overall CAT system. To me that meant more riders. I was always amazed by how empty the CAT buses were and I wasn't the only one who noticed. I thought several things needed to be done. 1) Smaller buses 2) Clean fuels for the buses 3) More bus stop shelters 4) Attracting a cross mix of riders.

So I asked the Director of CAT during a CAT board meeting, "Please tell me how many bus stops CAT has." He wasn't sure. Right then I realized CAT management wasn't focused on riders. What a shame. CAT is suppose to be in the transportation business right? Well, when the Director and his staff can not tell me how many bus stops the system has I asked how many shelters for riders are in the system? I knew this was a more manageable number since I saw few shelters and many people standing in the hot sun to ride CAT.  I just felt from a logical basis that in this hot and often rainy climate that having a place for your customers to wait for their bus made good business sense.

I was told that staff would have to research that and get back to me. 

The number of shelters at bus stops was incredibly small, I forgot the actual number but it was inconsistent with a smart business model and absent adequate shelters any chance of growing the ridership seemed  remote. We were in SPLOST discussions at the time so I got enough votes together on the County Commission to put $500,000 in the SPLOST budget just for CAT  shelters. Next, we instructed CAT management to start implementing a plan to build 200 new shelters. SPLOST passed and we believed that soon we would be seeing new shelters sprouting up around town. A good first step in creating a more rider friendly and attractive alternative transportation system.

Not so fast McMasters..... Next installment: "How do you define NEW shelter?"

Monday, May 26, 2008

Part 1: Mass Transportation

When this commission took office it cost us under $40 to fill my wife's car with gas. Yesterday it cost $78.54. That is a 100% increase in 3.5 years. The commission has zero control over fuel costs, we all know that but the county commission (9 votes out of 13 on the CAT board) does control our mass transportation system - Chatham Area Transit. 

If you didn't read yesterdays lead article in the Savannah Morning News, you should. The County Commission has done little to build up the CAT system, improve its standing in the community and help move people from point A to point B. Clearly, the article describes a failing transporation system that is losing ridership big time and with bigger expenses to riders and taxpayers.

Having served on the County Commission and CAT board in 2002, 03 and 04, let me share with you my first hand impressions of how county government views with and deals with mass transportation.

First, CAT suffered from incredible mismanagement from First Transit, the company the County Commission/CAT board contracted with for annual management of the system. The Director had a majority of votes on the CAT board including Chairman Hair in his pocket. This meant that common sense issues could be shot down at will and grandiose ideas could move ahead with great ease.

What common sense ideas am I referring to? Each year, 02, 03, and 04 I asked for a phasing out of big buses and a phasing in of smaller buses fueled by natural gas. There were not enough votes to move ahead with this plan. Too many of my colleagues saw no point in changing over.

What plan got a lot of attention and money was something called "The Bi State Mobility Plan." As good as it sounds, the center piece of this plan was high speed ferry service to Daufuski Island and Hilton Head. Now as to Daufuski Island, the consultant who wrote the Bi State Mobility Plan briefed me and another commissioner on his study. Basically, we were informed that there was a great desire to visit Daufuske Island (and to privately develop the Island) but one small impediment. There was no road to the island. So, through the largess of all Chatham County taxpayers, a couple of multi million dollar ferries would fix that right quick. We of course were being sold the notion that the real need was from tourism - all those people just clamoring to visit Daufuski Island for the day to play golf and eat lunch (and visit  the model homes!).

So clean fueled, smaller more efficient buses were unnecessary while studying ($100,000) high speed ferry service to a private island made perfect sense.

NEXT: Bus shelters and "How many bus stops do we have?"

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Old School Thinking

Someone recently pointed out to me the median age of the Chatham County Commission is like 60. For the record, I don't know their ages and if you exclude Kicklighter (the baby), the median gets higher. I turned 55 this year so I guess I fit that general calibration. I know compared to Pete Liakakis, I am a full generation younger.

Lots of people say that age is all in your head. That sounds nice but I think otherwise. What then tells us most about a person's mental agility? Perhaps what a person says sheds the most light on what goes on upstairs. Recently at Pat Farrell's first ever Town Hall Meeting (May 6) Pete was defending his deciding vote which raised property taxes in 2005, "If you live in a $50,000 house, it means you only have to pay 45 cents more a month in property taxes."

My guess is that the average home value in 2005 was almost 3 times Pete's number. In fact, I don't think there are any homes anywhere in Chatham County with a fair market value of $50,000.

Maybe how adept a person is with information technology provides another clue to whether or not they are "with it." Scott Larson recently reported that Pete told him, "I have small knowledge of computers." Indeed, Pete does not have a computer and I imagine he does not know how to use one. Odd for 2008, but not so odd for someone born during the great depression.

I'm trying to be fair, let's face it when I was in college there were no desktop or laptop computers. But I did go to college and graduate in 1976 from the University of California. As my professional career slowly started, I bought a computer and learned to use one.

If Chatham County is going to change with the times (maybe catch up is a better way to put it), we need to think quicker and smarter. Recycling is not a new concept. Impact fees have been around since 1991 in Georgia. CAT buses running on diesel is way old school. Bike paths and sidewalks are everywhere except in Chatham County. Regional thinking and planning must be established. Stacking the MPC with Realtors and developers is a turkey shoot on the environment. 

It probably wouldn't hurt, and probably would help,  lowering the median age on the county commission.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Impact Fees on New Construction

In 1991, the Georgia legislature passed a law allowing for the imposition of impact fees on new development. Of course the home builders challenged the law all the way to the supreme court where the high court decreed that impact fees were legal, appropriate and not a new form of tax.

The basic purpose of an impact fee is based on the undisputed fact that newly constructed residential and commercial projects create a larger demand for county/municipal services than is covered by their tax base. The new property taxes cover enough for maintenance and operations but not enough revenue to capitalize new projects.

This imbalance results in a strain on existing infrastructure unless local government can find a way to fund the new needs created by the new projects. 

Simply said, without putting a small one time impact fee on all new residential and commercial projects all the people who reside in the county are paying for the impact created by the new people who have moved or will move into the county. It is interesting to note that Bryan County, Effingham County and Jasper County all have chosen to go with impact fees. So have 20 other Georgia counties all of which are experiencing rapid growth.

The bottom line is this: Who should pay for the results of growth (new libraries, police precincts, roads, recreation, jails, and courts)? Those who already live here, or the people who have chosen to move here? It's an easy answer in my opinion.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

County Tree Ordinance Is Needed

Building a better tomorrow begins today. Actually it should have started a long time ago but we can see from the recent Pat Farrell town hall meeting last week (May 7) that nothing has improved when it comes to the county valuing the Islands old oak tree canopy. The recent loss of two canopy oaks on Johnny Mercer Blvd to allow for commercial development confirms this.

Here are the facts: The trees were in the public right of way which makes them public property. They were not interfering with the commercial development and had been specifically designated by the MPC to be "saved". For some reason the county decided to give the developer a 375 foot deceleration lane next to his project to allow for right hand turns into the new office project. The developer says he didn't even want the new lane but this county tree cutting has gotten so hot that now it's impossible to tell who is telling the truth.

What is not in dispute is that the property was zoned residential, not commercial. The Islands Land Plan duly adopted in 2001 specified the property to remain residential granting even more importance to its residential status. Of course what happened next is the all too predictable "zoning variance" which was granted by the MPC so the developer could build commercial. Why have a land plan at all if you are not going to follow it?

So now there are two issues hatched from this, "spot zoning" and the taking of canopy oak trees in the public right of way. When over 120 people showed up to Pat Farrell's 1st town hall meeting on the islands (since being elected almost 4 years ago) he was unprepared. The county staff pointed fingers in every direction, Pete Liakakis tried to point out that it was just two trees and the Islands has many more and the county has worked hard to give the citizens out there everything they wanted (except trees).

Alas, the most obvious thing was that the Chairman and the 4th district commissioner just don't get it. Well, I do and what I propose is an ordinance that specifically states that any canopy oak tree in the public right of way, public area or eased area will not be taken down without 1) public hearings, 2) a majority vote of the commission. This may not go far enough for some but it goes a long way to stopping canopy oaks from coming down without any discussion and without any direct accountability.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Why Such Jail Expense? Who Is In Charge?

Recently citizens of Chatham County learned that the new $110,000,000 county jail expansion contract was going to be awarded to a company (The Facility Group) that was recently indicted on 16 federal counts of bribery to elected officials. The bottom line as to costs on this jail project brings up serious questions. Why should the citizens of Chatham County be asked to spend $122,000 per jail bed when other recent in state jail expansions have been completed at a cost of around $30,000 per bed? 

The Savannah Morning News reported that most of the current commissioners said they voted and were prepared to approve the Facilities Group contract based on Sheriff Al St. Lawrence's urging and recommendation. County commissioners have a responsibility to those who elected them and that does include independent thinking for tax payers best interests on all projects.

The Chairman runs commission meetings and directs discussion. He or she has a larger obligation to vet and lead the commission on important issues. How this got by Mr. Liakakis is a curious question that I will be asking Mr. Liakakis through the election discussions and debates.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

TAD (tax allocation district) Bad News for Taxpayers

The current county commission recently voted unanimously to create a TAD (tax allocation district) that encircled a billion dollar residential development project called Savannah River Landing adjacent the Savannah River and just south of River Street. What this means is that for 20 years, yes 20 years, all the property taxes due from the new construction and sales will go exclusively to pay for the infrastructure improvements surrounding the development. This also means that the property taxes paid by new owners of these multi million dollar residences will have to be dedicated to only the infrastructure improvement costs, $54,000,000. None of their property taxes can legally be spent on police, fire, parks and recreation, libraries, or public transportation.

We must wonder why, when faced with the worst real estate market since the Great Depression along with an unrepresented foreclosure rate, the county commission would fall in line and vote to obligate (restrict) property taxes for 20 years from such a predictably risky development venture. The upshot of this public policy failure is most likely higher property taxes for everyone living in Chatham County.

Here is a link on the subject:
"Priming The Pump" Savannah Morning News