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Staff Editorials

Level field for bricks and mortar

The Rev. Billy Honor of the recently formed Faith, Justice and Truth Project has declared loopholes allowing some online retailers to skip paying sales tax “a moral issue” which may be overstating it.

But certainly the state needs to level the playing field between brick-and-mortar stores and online third-party facilitators for business reasons.

It’s hard to believe that in the 1990s online retailers were given generous preferences, such as avoiding state sales taxes, to help them get off the ground. We’d say that worked a little too well and offers yet another piece of evidence of what can, and usually does, go wrong when government gets involved in the free market.

What the Georgia legislature has already considered and should push through when they convene in 2020 is going after the sales taxes not being paid by third party facilitators. The state last year started requiring sales tax on direct online purchases, but it missed the facilitators, which is a massive piece of online revenue.

As explained in an article by Maggie Lee in the Saportareport.com, “Not all online purchases come with a sales tax in Georgia. For example, at Walmart.com or Amazon.com, buying something that one of those companies is selling out of their own warehouse will incur a sales tax. But if it’s something that some third party has listed for sale via that site, the seller is likely not collecting sales tax.”

The Faith, Justice and Truth Project projected that the state is missing more than $500 million in sales tax revenue from the facilitators, though the state projected that the revenue might be nearer $150 million.

Either way it would help all Georgians to see this revenue collected to fund items like the teacher pay raise that will be coming out of state taxpayer pockets.

While Georgia is in the 9th year of economic expansion finding consumption tax revenue like this greatly helps the state government expand without looking for more from income tax.

A more convincing reason we’d like to see the state ensure that all online purchases, including Uber rides and Airbnb, pay their share is about fairness to businesses right here in Jasper and other small towns that not only pay their sales taxes but also employ local people and support local causes. And, keep in mind at the county level, our Pickens County retailers pay property taxes which support schools and county operations, while online retailers do not. If anything, online retailers should pay a higher sales tax as they get by without contributing to a commercial property tax base.

There is simply no reason to allow online retailers of any kind to skate by while local Main Street businesses shoulder the brunt of funding public services. At one point there might have been some argument about the difficulty for online merchants to identify where the sales were being made, but with advances in technology and tracking of spending at their sites, this surely doesn’t apply any longer. If a bricks-and-mortar store and online direct seller can calculate what they owe the state so can the facilitators.

For the anti-any-tax critics, please consider this wouldn’t be a new tax, just seeing that everyone pays their fair share of existing taxes.

Our nation has always looked to its local business community to provide scholarships, support volunteer fire departments and employ teenage kids in the summer. Let’s support local businesses with our purchases and see that the state supports them by requiring the same taxes out of any online retailers.

As the Rev. Honor said in an AJC.com article, “It is a moral issue as it levels the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses.”

 

Tiny Homes - Bigger Picture

Last week we reported that the planning commission is studying possible tougher rules for RVs which appear would also apply to Tiny Homes – those popular, (at least in the digital world) cute structures, often built on trailer bodies.

The gist of the preliminary discussion was that people living permanently in RVs usually leads to problems. The planning commission discussed how they could give a temporary pass for people living in campers while their permanent home is under construction. Otherwise, people need to reside in RVs only in fully-regulated campgrounds and, even then, they need to crank up and take a trip once every 90 days.

Rodney Buckingham, the county director of planning,  said this is being ignored by people who have added permanent additions to what are intended as vehicles. Commission members noted this is a national trend. A search online confirms what the commission saw looming. Glamorized “#vanlife” and Tiny Home advocates extol the virtues of a life without permanent walls or a lengthy mortgage.

For anyone who has not been on a dealer’s lot, RVs can be expensive. The small, but very nice, Winnebago Revel starts at $134,000. And like anything you can certainly spend as much as you want for the big behemoths. 

Or, RVs can be found cheap. Used models are listed with prices of $10,000 or less. In north Georgia, where empty and affordable rental housing is as elusive as credible Bigfoot evidence, people - even families - may be tempted to view an RV as their only option.

Simply put, people need to respect neighboring properties and have their sewage handled properly, but let’s not be too quick to shut down a line of housing that could alleviate the shortage of affordable homes here.

As to whether you would rather have on your street an apartment complex or a Tiny Home development or RV park is a tough question to answer without seeing the details of each. This is what we advocate our local governing authorities do: be flexible, look at the details and think outside the stick-built-box.

As presented by the regional commission, the state of Georgia generally frowns upon housing other than the normal stick-built home. Inspections guidelines don’t offer much leeway for creativity, especially not for something smaller.

The first response from code writers like the regional commission regarding their preference for traditional housing comes down to safety. The state doesn’t want people to live in unsafe conditions – if it is new housing, that is. A glaring discrepancy is that older homes can be firetraps with rotten steps and exposed wiring and no one ever inspects, which makes the safety argument ring a bit hollow. There is also a related argument that if you own land in America and want to build your home from straw, sticks or bricks, you should be free to do so, but we’ll leave that point to deeper thinkers.

For now, we simply ask our planning commission to be broad-minded and open to  different takes on what constitutes a legal residence. Similar to their hard work developing forthcoming codes for event venues, the planning commission should recognize there is a lot of difference between one property to the next and rigid rules won’t work. 

It’s hard to support a government telling the owner of a well-made Tiny Home and 10 acres of wooded property that they can’t live on their own land – assuming they meet sewage requirements. But, it seems reasonable that the county/city codes should prevent someone from parking a 20-year-old camper in the middle of a crowded residential area and announcing “We’re Home.”

Instead of forcing iron-clad rules onto the books, our planning commission should follow their own example with venues and work to develop criteria, but at the same time recognize unique situations abound with the difference in lot sizes, locations, building plans and landowners’ desires.

 

Time to relocate state capitol

Our state capitol has been in Atlanta long enough. It’s time for a change, down to middle Georgia to spread the growth to  new areas of the Peach State and relieve some of the congestion in the metro area.

This is not that revolutionary of an idea.  Consider that Georgia has already had five capitols; why not six?

When the first seat of colonial rule was established in 1754, Savannah served as capitol. At that time, routine court matters such as divorce and name changes required a trip to the state capitol and Savannah was too far to the south from the bulk of the state, so in 1785, the capitol was moved to Augusta where it remained for a decade before it was judged too far to the east.

A new city, Louisville in Jefferson County, was created on 1,000 acres purchased and designed to be like Philadelphia – specifically to become the state’s seat of power. Louisville, like Augusta, only served as the capitol for a decade. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia online, it fell out of favor possibly over malaria concerns.

Milledgeville then took its turn as the capitol from 1807 through the Civil War. The legislature initially budgeted $60,000 to build a new capitol building. But then after the war, they packed up and followed the growth tied to railways to Atlanta where several major rail lines merged. They used one of the trains to load up the furnishings and paintings in Milledgeville and depart for Atlanta. We could use these same lines to send the legislature’s furnishings back to the south.

The simple fact is Atlanta and its surrounding metro area have gotten too big to  hold our state government and all our biggest companies and our sports teams and our urban tourist destinations, plus the roughly half-million people who call the city home.

It’s time to spread the wealth around. State leaders from Governor Brian Kemp to the representatives and senators all express concern that Atlanta is the state’s King Kong growth machine – very healthy, on the move, but completely out-of-control. This white hot growth in one city while the the rest of the state finds economic development a tough row to hoe is proving an intractable problem.

Census figures from the past year show that Atlanta grew to almost half a million people, but more than one-third of Georgia’s small towns lost population. The big cities got bigger and their industries grew, while small cities shrank in population and vitality.

Former capitol Louisville is one of those declining areas. It’s population was only 2,493 at the 2010 census, down from 2,712 at the 2000 census.

The state can’t dictate that private business move out of Atlanta, but they can look for new real estate themselves. If they moved the government seat to nearer the center of the state, it would make it more accessible to all Georgians.

Moving state government out of Atlanta to a convenient, but less crowded area, would spread the economic growth. State employees, lobbyists and related service jobs would be a boon for a rural area.

Certainly, the move would be expensive and inconvenient for state employees with roots in Atlanta but that is what being a public servant is all about – putting the needs of the private sector and citizens over government employees. 

Atlanta has gotten to serve as the capitol for 151 and we could give them another decade to complete the move but, if the top state officials are serious about creating economic opportunity for all Georgians, this is a way to put their money where their mouths are.

It’s about fairness for all areas of the state. Atlanta doesn’t need to get everything.Plus taking pressure of the metro-area roads would be a huge favor to the rest of the half million people who call the ATL home.

 

Jasper council unfair, sets bad precedent declining annexation

The rule of law here broke down with Jasper city council’s no-decision on a basic annexation request last week. The lack of a motion to accept (or even to decline) a 2.73 acre parcel along Highway 515 into the city limits smells capricious and arbitrary.

Further, it sets a bad precedent and sends the wrong message to the development industry. 

For decades the city has operated by accepting parcels into their corporate boundaries with few stipulations. The only practical requirements are that the parcel borders existing city property; the owner had to request it (no one was ever forced in); and some compatible zoning was put in place. Zoning decisions are subjective and this leads to legitimate disagreements, but annexations were cut and dry matters. There was no threshold for acceptance, if you wished to be annexed into Jasper, you were – at least before last week.

It’s been a fair system for commercial property. If you need sewage, then you must be in the city limits and pay city taxes.

What the council has done is upend that system, setting a new protocol that the five elected members will judge what properties are fit to be in Jasper and what are not.

It is akin to the department of motor vehicles allowing personal judgment to determine who gets a driver’s license. 

Imagine a driver’s license office manager saying, “That well-dressed young man gets a license today, but that seedy-looking dude doesn’t.” And this is what the council has done with their lack of a motion.

Making the whole matter more suspicious, the property in question appears a solid fit into the city limits with the commercial zoning requested. It is surrounded by Jasper jurisdiction, near a convenience store. The developer said he plans to put in a restaurant,  a business that could operate next to a convenience store under the proposed zoning. So not only would the annexation be routine but even the zoning shouldn’t raise eyebrows.

In any event, it’s not the government’s place to filter out which businesses they want and which they don’t want based on personal preferences. What they are charged with is seeing that reasonable codes are in place and enforced fairly and uniformly.

The problem may have been (as claimed by the mayor and the developer) a grudge or distrust of the developer by the council. As anyone who follows local news knows, developer David Shouse is involved in a pending lawsuit over the council’s denial of rezoning for another of his properties for apartments. He was also behind the whole “adult entertainment” hoax sign put up on yet another of his properties – probably not the shrewdest move for someone seeking to do business in the city and run for commission chair but neither the lawsuit, nor the sign, and certainly not his campaign, justify the council’s skirting standard operating procedure.

It’s possible there is more to this story than meets the eye. As close readers may recall, the council didn’t actually vote down the annexation. They didn’t make any motion, nor any public comment on why they wouldn’t render a decision – effectively they killed it without wishing to take any responsibility.

That’s doesn’t fly and that’s where we fear collateral damage and poor precedent were set. If they had issued a statement saying they were voting no because of some reason, even if people disagreed with their reasoning, it gives some logic to this apparently illogical move.

Instead it’s hard not to be left with the surface impression: The council wouldn’t allow an outspoken developer to have a piece of appropriate property brought into the city limits. Now, who is going to invest in commercial real estate bordering Jasper when it appears that if you rub the council wrong, you are denied access to city infrastructure?

The council needs to remedy or explain what appears to be personal feelings thwarting fair treatment of all property owners.

 

 

Set your own course

    Dear PHS class of 2019:

Graduation Day - the day you’ve dreamed of for so long - is here. After all the studying, the tests, the football and basketball games, the drama, the break-ups and the make-ups, it’s finally here. More than 280 students will take their last walk across Dragon Stadium field Saturday during the commencement ceremony - and what a day it will be. 

A high school graduation is a particularly special moment in the lives of students and their families. Parents’ chests swell with pride as they watch their child in cap and gown receive that diploma, an accomplishment their kids have been working towards since kindergarten. 

Graduates, you have every right to bask in the moment, but on your special day remember the folks who have been in your corner supporting you every step of the way - the parents, the teachers, the administrations, and your friends.

And graduates, as you accept your diplomas, remember the world needs your energy and your unique skills and passions, and we hope as you grow into adults you choose to be kind, caring, and inclusive, because right now we need good people in this world. 

Deborah Roberts, a 1982 graduate of the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, gave the school’s commencement speech earlier this month. Roberts told UGA graduates to “look for the goodness in people, and in situations. You can’t find yourself if you aren’t able to look for and find the kindness and common ground in something else. You don’t have to agree with everyone you meet, but if you are to learn and grow you need to practice ‘radical compassion.’ Class of 2019, you are stepping into a world that can use a lot of radical compassion right now.”

Roberts said we are in challenging times filled with “tension, anxiety, polarization,” and that “people are afraid to share their thoughts for fear they are going to be misunderstood, or blamed or labeled in some negative way.”

She urged graduates to talk to people without fear, and told them that to develop compassion we need to connect with others in real ways. Step away from those devices and do some real connecting - not on Facebook - but in real life. 

“Make a point to meet people who don’t look like you or think like you,” Roberts said. “You may learn something new if you’re willing to open your eyes and open your heart.”

When you stepped on campus for the first time as freshmen you may have been nervous, anxious, and scared of what was to come, of how you would fit in and who you would hang out with. On Saturday you should realize you took that puzzle and figured it out - but the puzzle doesn’t stop there. High school is a teen-sized litmus test for the rest of your adult life - sometimes it goes well, other times it doesn’t, but you can get through the challenges, learn from them, and move on to a better life.

Even though striving for the top and those big dreams is important, the reality is most people don’t end up being CEOs or pro athletes. Most people are the I-just-want-to-live-my-simple-life-and-love-my-life kind of folks. Remember, greatness isn’t necessarily having a top job at a top company. Greatness is reaching out to friends in need. Greatness is those who go out of their way to be thoughtful when no one is looking - the unsung heroes. If there’s anything to take from your graduation ceremony, remember that to leave a legacy and to achieve greatness is not to leave piles of money or have public recognition, it’s to leave those you cross paths with a little more happiness along the way. Your time at PHS will not be remembered by grades, popularity, likes or favorites, but by relationships - the kind of person you were. These are the legacies we should leave. 

Congratulations to the Class of 2019 from the Progress staff.