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Staff Editorials

Poor national mental health policies have real, local effects

There used to be the occasional jokes in this area about taking someone to Milledgeville – which back in the earlier 1900s, most people knew referred to the state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Ga.

Those jokes wouldn’t work at all now. Obviously they wouldn’t be politically correct and, secondly, there are virtually no mental hospitals anywhere in America.

According to national reporting on the loss of state mental hospitals, in the 1960s through 1980s, the government/experts decided that mental hospitals were cruel, barbaric and the patients needed more freedom.

Rather than fix the problems – perhaps with more treatment, better conditions and consideration of those housed there - they more or less just shut down everything.

The government still houses quite a few psychiatric patients. Unfortunately for most, especially those without good insurance, they are housed in county jails and state prisons.

The summer 2018 issue of Esquire magazine reported that “nearly 400,000 of the 2.2 million prisoners in the United States have a psychiatric diagnosis.” As a comparison the article reports that state run psychiatric hospitals house only 38,000 people. 

Other commonly cited figures say that half of all prisoners in America are suffering from mental issues and for women prisoners it is thought the rate of mental illness is higher (possibly reaching 75 percent), according to a New York Post article in July of 2018.

The Esquire article went on to cite a statement from the National Alliance on Mental Illness - “In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than to get medical help.”

According to the reporting, in 1955 government run hospitals housed 560,000 patients. In 1980 the number of mentally ill people housed in state hospitals had dropped by 80 percent.

This is not some big city problem that we are immune to in our small town. In an August 2016 story, the Progress reported that jailers here routinely cite lacking resources to handle a growing segment of mentally ill prisoners as a major problem to keeping good jailers.

Several jailers and senior officers told the Progress during an extended tour of the jail at that time that roughly 10 percent of their 140 average population has a mental issue severe enough that they are a challenge to deal with. And that number did not include any prisoner suffering temporary mental issues caused by drug/alcohol in their system or withdrawal effects.

Among the challenges faced by jail staff is that they can’t force a prisoner to continue taking already prescribed medication; nor can they diagnose or offer medication to those in jail.

Jailers at that time described the additional stress caused by mentally ill prisoners resulting from unprovoked attacks, thrown feces, and constant yelling and screaming.

Officers said they can often place an inmate with insurance into a private mental hospital, but there were few resources for a mentally ill patient with no means to pay for treatment.

The local jail can refer them to state hospitals but prisoners are often sent right back as there is such a scarcity of beds.

Not only is there a moral duty for America to stop considering our jails the proper place to stash mentally ill people, there is an efficiency/financial incentive to address this problem.

It’s worth pointing out that taxpayers already pick up the tab for housing mentally ill prisoners in terms of jail space, beds and the additional manpower. It’s not that a better system would necessarily cost more. It’s that we are using the wrong institution (jails) to handle a problem that is already widespread, unlikely to improve, costly, and dangerous to the prisoners and those who are charged with caring for them.

With our nation’s mental health, we’ve chosen short term expediency over working for a solution of how to handle mentally ill people who can not afford private care, and that needs to change.

 

From weddings to retreats, clear rules, standards needed

In what has become a trend, the planning commission most months hears a request for a special use permit from someone seeking to open a public venue – usually tied to the wedding business.

The appointed commission members then wring their hands over the lack of guidance in forming coherent and uniform decisions on these “special uses.” 

Then they either approve or disapprove, in a fairly arbitrary manner.

Last month, they tabled a recommendation on a permit for a property in the Henderson Mountain Road area presented with the unusual twist of tree house lodging.

The previous month, they approved a permit for a bed and breakfast to host small weddings, and the occasional meeting or fundraiser dinner in the Long Swamp Church area in a home where the owners would continue to live.

But, they voiced a negative opinion on a much larger wedding venue on Philadelphia Road. Different results even though a couple of their concerns (accessibility to emergency crews; limits on the venue’s growth; signage for out-of-area motorists; general traffic in the area) applied to both.

They have approved the special use permit for an eco-friendly farm-lodging operation in the Whitestone area, even though planning director Richard Osborne cited this as having a poor access road for emergency crews. They approved a wedding venue on Cove Road that backs up to Big Canoe, but this one led to a slap on the wrist for the county’s whole zoning appeals procedure from the Ga. Supreme Court.

During the July meeting, planning commission members Lee Thrasher, Clayton Preble and Bill Cagle all made similar statements about the lack of any “template” (Preble’s word).

And they appear to still be at square one for this template. The only hard and fast rule for a special events/wedding venue is to shut down live music/outside events by 10 p.m. (We’ll wager their sole rule will be a huge enforcement problem, trying to turn out a wedding barn full of paying guests that early.) 

Commission member Thrasher remarked in the July meeting that his “gut instinct” is they need something more. Thrasher’s gut is correct.

Among the template/ standard procedures that are needed:

• Categories - The commission could save a lot of time to formally recognize that a bed-and-breakfast in a private home and 300-person capacity venue need different levels of scrutiny from the start.

• Provisions to limit future changes/expansions – It never fails to come up that neighbors comment they don’t have a problem with the proposed plan/owner but what happens if the venue changes hands and it goes from a small yoga retreat to the next Burning Man Festival? This is a valid question. The commission needs a legal means to allow a business to move ahead with some plans without giving them carte blanche for anything they want down the road.

• Farms and festivals may both be good, but need to be judged differently.  The commission needs to go further to refine/separate agriculture versus agro-tourism. Agro-tourism has been targeted as a great way to spur commerce in rural areas. But, for land-use planning purposes, there is a vast difference between a pick-your blueberry farm and a winery that hosts festivals.

• Roads and infrastructure – Commission member Harold Hensley made the observation that it seems every road in the county is too crowded, with traffic moving fast. Commission members should be presented with actual vehicle numbers, crash reports and a professional opinion of the road condition. 

Similarly with water/infrastructure issues, there is either enough capacity or not, and a report from the water department should settle that.

The possibility of these agro-tourism venues developing  nice, unique settings, attracting out-of-town spending and creating jobs makes this discussion a worthwhile endeavor. But they can’t be allowed at the cost of sacrificing the quality of life of the neighbors. It’s a tough job to find the right balance. We do not envy the planning commission this task. Let’s hope that the county will better prepare them with a template to make good decisions.

 

City of Jasper and County should get together more often

Last week, county commissioners held a called joint meeting with Jasper City Council and Mayor John Weaver to discuss details about the Grandview Lake reservoir project. Nothing unusual there, right? It makes sense for two government entities to meet about one of the most important developments in Pickens County’s water supply in decades, right? 

Of course it makes sense for them to meet, but this meeting of the minds was highly, highly unusual - we can’t recall a single time county and city officials have met publicly to discuss anything, just the two of them, in at least 10 years. This fact was pointed out by two council members that night. Council member Sonny Proctor encouraged similar meetings in the future, while council member Kirk Raffield called it an “historic” event he hasn’t seen in his lifetime, going so far as to ask for a group photo to document it.  We spoke with a person closely involved in the project and he called the discussion “excellent,” commenting that having two government bodies hash out ideas and differing opinions is the “best way to do business.”  

We agree, and we’re honestly not sure how the city and the county have functioned so long without getting together. Jasper was identified at the recent Comprehensive Planning meetings as the driving force in Pickens County, with most commerce and infrastructure located inside the city limits, and there needs to be open and frequent communication between them and the county. Like Raffield said, “These two entities sitting together, things can only get better for our community. This group serves one community. That’s important for us to remember.” 

The benefit of such a meeting was made apparent not 10 minutes into discussion when some long-held misunderstandings were cleared up about the Grandview Lake project. The mayor thought the county wanted to sell water they will draw from the lake to customers inside the city’s service delivery area, which was not the case and resolved in a matter of seconds. 

A few examples of where more frequent discussion between the two entities could be beneficial are: 

• Parks - the city has one woefully underused park (Doris Wigington) in dire need of improvements, and the county has a park (Roper) that’s always too crowded;

• Road problems inside Bethany Moorings subdivision, which are currently located in the county but because of a complicated lawsuit are slated to be annexed into the city;

• Sewage treatment, which the county doesn’t have, and which the city wants to expand its facility but is struggling to justify the massive cost at this point.

The fact that a council member wanted to take a photo at last week’s meeting to document the unusual occurrence is telling. By no means are we proponents of meetings for the sake of having meetings (heaven knows we attend too many ourselves), but periodic meetings between city and county leaders including planning and development directors and other department heads can do nothing but good things for our community. 

 

Local news is our bread and butter

By Dan Pool, Editor

In last week’s edition Tim Schutter queried us in a letter to the editor on our  stance on the statement that journalists are the enemy of the people made by the president.

Upon further thought and staff discussion, we feel that our original response did not explain adequately why we generally avoid commenting on national politics.

So here is an expanded explanation of our position in response to Mr. Schutter’s excellent question.

I generally steer our editorial page away from national news in favor of local issues for a couple of reasons based on conclusions  drawn after years working at this local paper.

1. There is an ample amount of coverage of national politics available to everyone, all the time, literally everywhere you look. 

The national papers cover it; there are television stations that broadcast it all day, every day without pause in an unceasing torrent.

If you want discussion, coverage, opinions on national issues look anywhere. Go to a restaurant and it’s on the television there; look down at your phone and it’s there. Check the Braves score online and you’ll get 32 updates on national news. 

Knowing our limitations, I doubt there is anything new, insightful or different we could offer to the national scene that is not already expressed somewhere in this cacophony of views. Frankly, I want the Progress to offer something different.

 

2. There is no one else commenting or covering our city councils, planning commissions and events inside the county. Last week for example we both praised the city council and commissioners for something as simple as holding a joint meeting and then went on to point out they really ought to do it more often. 

Local is our focus. It’s what we know about, can offer insight on and what interests us as a staff. A pronouncement from our commission chair carries a lot more weight on the day-to-day activities here than some acidic barb hurled in Washington. 

I believe that if people paid a little more attention to what is happening here and less on the innuendos and name-calling in Washington we’d all be better off — maybe we’d have nicer parks (which we have editorialized for numerous times) or a comprehensive infrastructure plan. Maybe more people would take time to ponder the opioid crisis right here in this county and develop additional local resources.

Accurate news coverage and thoughtful commentary on the local level is our bread and butter. I have confidence we do it well and that it makes a difference. When we run stories about efforts to raise funds for some person’s medical needs or a group’s work to address a social problem, we can make a difference.

 

3. Finally, I plead limited ignorance to the national hubbub. There is a breaking headline constantly coming from Washington. I don’t have the time or any special resources to study them — to assess exactly what Mr. Trump may have said or the context. While I support my fellow journalists, before I jump on any bandwagon, I would feel the need to personally dig for the source and, frankly, I rarely have the luxury of the time necessary to sort through the claims and counterclaims.

 

I hope this better explains our position. And I thank the writer of the letter to the editor last week for taking us to task for not articulating it more clearly in the first place.

We may occasionally address a national issue, particularly if we feel the subject hits home in Pickens County. And we welcome others to bring their perspectives in the Other Voices column or as letters to the editor. But for the most part, our view is focused on the area between Talking Rock and Nelson, Big Ridge and Yellow Creek.

We welcome questions or comments regarding any of our coverage decisions. Look at the contact information below. 

Talking & thinking about Jasper

By Dan Pool

Editor

 

It seems that quite a few people from all walks of life have had downtown and the whole of Jasper on their minds lately. Both at the paper and around town, I have heard a number of discussions on what’s wrong with Jasper.

Not that these opinions have been sharply negative, but the general consensus is that Jasper is lacking something. One person referred to it as a “vibe,” which Jasper just doesn’t have downtown compared to Blue Ridge or Ellijay or even Ball Ground.

It is hard to define what gives an area a positive vibe. If you ask people what they liked about other towns, they invariably start by describing the businesses there or an event they hold.

Rarely, did anyone cite any cityscape element. No one complimented any other city’s sidewalks or how they arranged their plants.

The infrastructure of Jasper is not lacking. The sidewalks are nice, wide, smooth; there are brick accents and plants and trees. There is new asphalt on Main. There is a monument on the north end of town and a green space on the south; a scenic “Old Jail” and an attempt at a fountain.

The city plans to add downtown bathrooms and the merchants are looking to add lights. As far as the public areas go, what more can we do? Literally. Readers ask yourself are there features you have seen elsewhere that might convey a better vibe in Jasper and are feasible to bring here? [e-mail at bottom to comment]

We can’t replicate the Spanish Steps of Rome on Depot Street but perhaps the city/merchants/Chamber could do more with signage or other affordable touches? Please offer suggestions. [e-mail at the bottom]

One missing element often identified in Jasper is the people, as in the public, the shoppers, window shoppers, diners and pedestrians.

On the weekends, Ellijay and Blue Ridge are packed – too crowded, while Jasper often has a near-deserted look. City council member Kirk Raffield told me how he was sprucing up the grounds at the Old Jail when some out-of-towners paid us a compliment of sorts -- they liked Jasper because the streets were so empty. It’s true. On a Sunday afternoon you may have Main Street to yourself. 

One finer point to consider is that both Blue Ridge and Ellijay have large crowds of tourists holed up in mountain/river/lake cabins to draw from. People are visiting the areas north because of natural assets we simply don’t have in Pickens and there are not hundreds of rental cabins up in our hills. 

Jasper could add more street signage, better planters and more attractive signage but without those big natural draws we aren’t going to see that heavy traffic stopping here.

Some may read this and come to the conclusion that we favor  doing nothing. But that is not our position at all.

We believe there is always a place for improvement. Anything that makes Jasper better is a great service for all of us who live here – even if it doesn’t lure crowds.  Significant improvement is still laudable, even if it doesn’t bring a tide-change in the vibrancy of our town overnight.