Monday, August 11, 2008

Voter Apathy 3

Well, I was ready to move on after tussling with voter apathy and all the implications. However, we received a letter to the Editor at the Fayette Front Page, and since I'm the Editor, I decided to post it on my blog, too. Excellent letter, very thought provoking. My reason for harping for long and so often over the past years regarding voter apathy is a wild hope that more people will get involved. It seems I've found a kindred spirit in that regard! -- Janet

Dear Editor,

Regarding Voter Apathy

Peachtree City and the rest of Fayette County are facing death by a thousand cuts. Little by little the city and county are lurching toward an urban wasteland. Due to a lack of broad citizen involvement in government and community the city and county will be controlled by narrow special interests.

Let's look into a hypothetical community future shall we?

What happens next is that the Publics shopping center east of the city is annexed. The city government faced with wilting property values and tax revenues gladly welcome this newfound source of revenue into the city coffers. All they have to do is give certain exceptions to the sign ordinance, not knowing that this will open a whole set of new problems surrounding the city's established ordinances. Learning from this "happy" experience, Counsel continues annexing properties to the north, east, south, and west. Including the 35-acre tract on 74 north that is currently under consideration by the council. More land east of the city will need to be annexed as growth continues down the 54 corridor and other properties are considered satisfactory. The old sign ordinances will be deemed "out of date and passé" or worse challenged by the courts. Cart paths are required to connect new subdivisions and retailing centers further east of the city. Fire, police, and city services are needed to support these newly annexed areas. Of course, more revenue is needed for the infrastructure that was never considered or somehow overlooked by council research, creating yet another fiscal crisis that needs to be addressed through new city tax increases. Traffic increases as properties proliferate just outside the city limits; only to be later annexed into the city and the cycle begins again. To the west across Line Creek, developers are at work ready to siphon business and tax revenues out of the city center. Planned tax revenues fall, but of course government needs to increase its size because the city is getting bigger and a new city hall is built using bonds paid for by, you guessed it, you. No one is watching anyway, so of course no one objects. More people leave the city and county.

Then the new county employee defined benefits plan and pay increases passed and implemented just before the election kick in. The city's defined benefits plan as well as the county plan runs a significant deficit. Coupled with a dismal economic outlook these programs engender new creative tax remedies all of them will be unfriendly financial solutions to our governments' fiscal dilemmas. Due to a lack of fiscal accountability by citizens, they allow government spending to balloon and greater tax revenues are required to fund it. Tax revenues decrease as people leave the county for greener pastures that are less expensive.

Commissioners continue to be reelected by relative small special interest groups, people that have been incentivized to vote for them, using our tax money. Government workers are happy and content until they find out that their retirement plans are bankrupt. Taxpayers are asked to fund the unfunded liability, they refuse the massive tax increases required to do this. Then and only then county employees realize there are no guaranteed retirement plans, just as Delta employees found out years earlier. County and city employees leave as they realize that they can't afford to live here with the small amount given to them by the now defunct retirement plans.

Due to the recent results of the countywide primary election, knowing that they were "safe" from the electorate the Board of Commissioners decided a week after these elections to suddenly cave in on the billboard lawsuit. No doubt advised by the new county attorney the commission was easily persuaded. Knowing full well they have at least two years for everyone to forget their latest bad decision and comforting themselves by knowing that no one ever shows up at the commission meetings anyway. Let's just imagine for a moment our new future. Look at the billboards in Fulton County that stop at the Fayette county line on Hwy 74, now imagine them continuing down the road toward your homes erected in what is now scenic green pasture land. Go look over the county line at Clayton County, notice anything along State 85 north and south? Well get use to it. You will see them between Fayetteville and Peachtree City; between 138 and Fayetteville, along S54 west to Clayton County, and S85 south to the Spalding County line, it's just a matter of time. This won't happen slowly, it will cascade throughout the county as landowners see they can make some easy money doing nothing but renting land space at our visual expense. Creating the same cluttered environment currently seen beyond our county lines. The county Commissioners won't be able or willing to stop this process. They have already given up the good fight started by past Commissioners that wanted to preserve what we had. Nothing like determined public servants working on the behalf of our citizens, right? We wouldn't want to take it all the way to the courthouse wall would we? Too messy and expensive, besides look at the tax revenue potential generated by these billboards! More people leave the county and city.

The proposed industrial park is built next to the bypass road currently being built around Fayetteville, increasing commercial and employee traffic next to some serene unsuspecting neighborhoods and schools. Land use plans are ignored or changed to "enhance" the tax base. Citizens in these neighborhoods protest but decisions have already been made and passed by the Commission before they are aware of what has happened to them. Property values in these neighborhoods plummet and surrounding schools deteriorate. Citizens wonder what happened and why they didn't know. Much of it due to the fact that complete published Board of Commission meeting minutes were not timely or accurately reported on the county website. And of course citizens never bothered to attend Board meetings to see what they were doing and why. Citizens were all too busy. The families in the affected neighborhoods move elsewhere.

Then enrollment in the schools decline as people move out and test scores continue to degenerate. In school learning conditions worsen and the good teachers and administrators leave the system as student violence increases. The School Board desperate for more money because of a misguided belief that assets and employees are the answer to the declining performance, ask for and get a SPLOSTS passed. Then quality education declines anyway because those things the Board wanted won't help improve anything. More good teachers leave, but more non-teaching staff employees safety officers and metal detectors are required to stem gang activity in the schools. Already overburdened property owners are hit again by ever-increasing tax bills as their property values fall due to failing schools. More citizens leave the county and city.

Economic activity declines. Empty storefronts appear everywhere as petty theft and shoplifting drive current owners out of business. No one will rent these properties as entrepreneurs choose better and safer locations to open their businesses. Large businesses question if this is the right place to locate their employees and choose some other community to set up their new facilities. The new industrial park fails to gain the needed tenants to pay for the bonds, but the bonds will still have to be paid. Government responds by increasing taxes needing more money to make up shortfalls in planned tax revenues caused by a diminishing commercial tax base and a failed attempt at attracting it. Never considering for a moment that they could actually reduce the size and scope of government as a possible solution. More citizens leave the county and city.

There will be nothing unique or special in Fayette County it will look like all other surrounding counties, billboards, empty stores, declining schools, and crime. Then significantly more citizens catch on to what is happening and move out of the county and city for a promised better life and family environment that is promoted elsewhere.

Drug use becomes rampant and cart paths become "crime paths", litter is everywhere, including needles and syringes left by the drug users. Drug houses sprout up throughout the county. Women and children are no longer able to walk their paths or streets and play in their parks without fear. Good citizens fight back by erecting fences around their property, destroying the openness of the city and surrounding county. Murders and robberies become commonplace and a siege mentality develop among the citizenry. Security services signs blossom in every yard. The valiant city police and county sheriff departments rightly demand more resources in order to fight the ever-increasing crime rates, thus increasing taxes again. Property values continue to fall and the community continues its downward spiral. The floodgates open and there is a mass exodus of citizens, and rental properties are all the rage.

Federal and State grants and subsidies are requested to solve our problems all with strings attached, losing more local control of property, politics, and schools, the final remnants of the original citizenry will die off or finally move way. Leaving behind a wasteland resembling current surrounding environs, with broken schools, and crime-ridden streets.

Think it can't happen here? Think again.

It can happen, it has happened to many communities. It's not just voter apathy; it's an unwillingness to become involved in the community and our political system by the good citizens empowered by representative government to change it. Refusing to improve knowledge of what is going on and acting on it. Refusing to demand fiscal restraint and political accountability. Refusing to register to vote. If registered then not voting in an informed way. Leaving it to someone else to fight for your homes and schools. Shutting your eyes to what is happening around you and hoping that it will all go away. But of course you may be one of those brave and noble citizens that simply move, right? It is easier to give up than fight or spend energy on local politics or community, right? Well friends, it will happen again no matter where you move, because you are the cause of all of these potential problems. You shape our future and our future will be your shame.

Rome was not built in a day and the city and county will not be destroyed in a day either, both will die from the thousand cuts of your neglect. Paraphrasing Shakespeare "The fault citizens, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Get involved; get your neighbors and friends involved don't just sit there, engage yourself in local issues, improve your knowledge of your government, register to vote and cast an informed vote!! Let's all begin to demand open accountable government, it is essential to our very freedom and clearly in our self-interest. It's your community; let's all fight for it. Wake up before our future catches up to us, and remember we can shape it.

If you agree with me and want to help with improving your local government email me at Let's get organized let's shape our future and not just let it happen.

James Wingo
Peachtree City

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