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Staff Editorials

Thanksgiving and New Year's holiday editorial duo

What we are thankful for

 

• With a decisive 42-13 win against Kentucky Saturday, we are extremely thankful that for the first time in years, Georgia is a true contender for a SEC title and still in the hunt for a national championship. Fingers crossed Dawgs.

• While not publicly open yet, the fact that Pickens is about to be on the region’s outdoor recreation map with a top-notch mountain biking trail is surely a delightful blessing. Even if you don’t intend to ride it, know that this trail, west of Highway 515 at the Gilmer line, is a big step in tourism. 

• Money is not exactly falling from the sky in Pickens County, but by all accounts businesses and people are doing better this year than they have in a decade. Jobs are out there; people are buying; commerce is being transacted. After so many years of stagnant growth, the uptick of 2017 is something to be thankful for. 

• Sweatpants and elastic waistbands, especially around 2 p.m. this Thanksgiving Day, something we look forward to.

• For people that keep traditions alive. Traditions are valuable all year round, but are especially important during the holiday season when we gather for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other special holidays. But traditions don’t just happen, people make them happen. There are leaders in every family, group of friends, or community who make the effort to make sure those special dinners, reunions, festivals, and other special events go on every year and we’re grateful for that. 

• Better transparency in the school system. Since Dr. Carlton Wilson was hired as school superintendent there has been noticeable improvement to communication and more openness about happenings in our schools. We’re also thankful that he and the school board are considering outside-of-the-box solutions for important items like phasing out the Jasper Middle School campus and the school calendar. 

• An out of town tour bus driver with a group up for the Marble Fest was shocked when someone told him it’d be okay to leave his bus in a Nelson street. We’re thankful to live in a small town where people still feel comfortable leaving their doors unlocked and vehicles in the street, ocassionally. 

Happy Thanksgiving 

from the Progress 

 

Time is of the essence for New Year’s celebration decision

 

Regardless of the verdict, a decision is needed on Jasper’s New Year’s celebration 2017. Like trying to plan a party, you can’t dilly-dally on deciding who brings the fruit-punch. Now, multiply this to a city-wide scale and you surely can’t wait until the last moment for a street celebration. We worry it’s already  too late to reverse the cancellation.

The Jasper Merchants Association leaders are working their hardest to see that our New Year’s eve bash makes it into the fifth year. The obstacles are sizeable in organizing the downtown celebration – manpower to set up/take down  the stage, finding entertainment, arranging security, clean-up after midnight,   not to mention fireworks, a ball or something to mark the end of 2017.

It looks insurmountable unless the Jasper council, who voted to not fund it themselves, jumps back on board and even if they do, it still looks like a daunting task given we’ll be less than a month away when a decision is reached.

The council is not scheduled to meet again until December 4, with this item  on that agenda. We encourage them to have a special meeting ASAP and give a go/no-go answer.

In their defense, the Jasper council has probably not been asked to convene a special meeting (until now) and put this issue to rest, but time is of the essence to determine if the big party on January 31st will happen or not. 

The council has held other special meetings and this is a case where every day counts. If the merchants manage to bring this back to life, let’s give them as much time as possible to make it a success.

Our opinion mirrors the mayor’s (see page 1 story). If the private group can do it well, let’s party. But it’s better to have nothing than something so rushed that it presents a poor image of the town.

Follow this link for an article about Jasper Merchant's Association's efforts to keep the event going this year. 

Fighting the plastic shopping bag menace

The thing about plastic shopping bags is they are so darn good at their intended purpose: A super-efficient way to get your goods home from Walmart or the farmers market.

What is convenient for a moment, however, is a problem for centuries: How to get rid of the mounds of plastic bags?

According to figures found widely online: 

• In the U.S. alone, 100 billion of the bags are used each year.

• The average lifespan of each bag is 20 minutes -- one commute.

• 60-100 million barrels of oil are used each year to produce the world’s supply of bags.

• The bags are projected to take 400 to 1,000 years to decompose. There is no exact science on this. When you are talking 10 centuries, the bags could outlast the species that created them – a bunch of bags and Styrofoam cups floating in the cosmos after the earth is gone.

Industry groups that produce the bags are quick to point out that they are easily recyclable. Most stores have convenient drop-off bins and will take old bags from competing stores.

The proponents of the bags also note that many bags have a second life as  trash can liners or other uses. Apparently 90 percent of all consumers in an industry-funded survey say they re-use at least some of the bags.

The problem, according to the critics, stems directly from what makes them so economical, they are generally designed for a single use – the handles rip, they tear easily. They are great at getting one load of groceries home, but would you load them down a second or third time?

Conscientious shoppers take care to get the bags back to the recycling bin, but if the plastic bags get loose outside, they are light enough to take flight and wind up where the breeze takes them, often into storm drains in cities and very often into oceans and frequently into the stomachs of large sea creatures.

In 2014, plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item collected during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup.

While we don’t have a coastline here, think how often you see one of those bags tangled up in bushes at the parks, blowing down roadsides or half-buried at some open site.

Bringing the bag-hordes under control is a matter of all consumers accepting less convenience in their lifestyle -- something not very common.

Environmentalists who recognize the problem with the plastic acknowledge there is no easy substitute. Bags made of any other products (wood-pulp paper, cotton or fibers) come with a whole different set of issues due to the volume of bags needed to meet the world’s needs. 

One person joked online that the liberals are already well-positioned to make a change in bag-behavior as they can use all those tote-bags given by public television stations during fund-drives.

Many cities and some countries are adding taxes to the bags or requiring stores to charge for them, which has produced a corresponding amount of whining, but also a substantial drop in the usage.

Britain introduced a small charge at stores in 2015, leading to a plunge of more than 80 percent in the use of plastic bags, according to an article in the Guardian. Think about it this way, if you are buying a drink and candy bar would you really pay another dime for a bag to carry them to the car?

New York City, Los Angeles and at least 100 other smaller U.S. municipalities have some kind of punitive tax or rule in place to discourage single-user plastic bags.

Poorer countries have taken a lead in the fight to eliminate plastic bag litter by banning them. Both Rwanda and Kenya have draconian laws prohibiting the bags entirely – partly because the countries lack efficient garbage services and people there can literally see the scope of the waste as it buries vacant land.

Some combination of education and additional costs would prod consumers to realize you don’t need to bag every single item you purchase. Rather than imposing harsh rules or bans, if consumers recognized the impact of taking the bags and then throwing them in the trash immediately when they get home, maybe we can all cut back voluntarily.

Keep in mind those plastic goblins must go somewhere and wherever they wind up, they are there to stay forever.

 

Needed at area groups: fresh blood, warm bodies

Several weeks ago the leader of the Sassafras Literary Society came to us to discuss their dwindling membership. The group, which promotes creative writing among adults and youth, was suffering from the deaths of some key members and poor health of others.

The group’s writing contest for youth has been a mainstay of young scribes for three decades but this year  it wasn’t clear how they would find enough readers to judge the piles of entries from middle and high school writers.

We ran a couple of stories on it and enough warm bodies showed up to their next meeting to avert the crisis – for this year.

As we were preparing our guide for this year’s Marble Festival, it became apparent that tour times/info for the Old Jail was going to be sparse. The Marble Valley Historical Society, who operate the jail, was short on guides and volunteers – again due to a combination of deaths of local historians and poor health of other members.

Due to the scarcity of volunteers able to get around the historic building, tours were self-guided with the jail still seeing a steady stream of visitors the day it was open. But as we reported last week, our prime historic attraction on Main Street won’t be open unless someone schedules a private tour.

A similar fate has fallen on the Jasper Lions Club, (where one of our staff is a member), whose membership has also fallen over the last few years. Similar to the Marble Valley Historical Society, the remaining active members are getting older and have less energy to perform volunteer work that’s often labor intensive, like buying and sorting thousands of toys for the Fil-A-Stocking program. 

A few years ago the decades-old  Sharptop Arts Association had to shutter its doors in large part because the non-profit couldn’t recruit anyone into leadership roles. 

An unfortunate trend seems to be developing where the hard-working volunteers that have provided this community with historical societies, literary contests, and other service projects are aging-out. They are not being replaced by a steady flow of new members.

Possibly, young and middle-aged people (and here we mean anyone under 60) are no longer as interested in these particular groups and their missions. That’s a shame. From  promoting the arts to organizing Toy Runs, these groups have done a lot of good.

Or possibly, as is often reported, younger families are stretched in too many directions and the social expectation that solid middle class people join some type of Lions, Optimists, Jaycees, a lodge or Sportsmen’s Club is falling by the wayside. Certainly the custom of this era is moving away from genuine face-to-face socializing and more toward glaring at a cell phone.

We would ask our readers to look at some of the groups out there and see if any interest you. They all welcome visitors where you can find out more about their missions. Some, like the historical society, don’t have regular meetings but could surely spring back into life if the interest was there.

We would also suggest if you’ve got an interest that is not currently represented by a club out there, start one. We’ll publicize it for free in the Progress and see if there are others around who share your interest, guaranteed you’ll find joining/starting a small group infinitely more rewarding that ranting online.

10 Things you need to know about this county and senior taxes

All of the points below are very basic, but they are essential to an educated discussion regarding the key issues of the day in this county. While they may seem obvious to longtime followers of county/school news, recent questions and comments show that a little refresher is needed.

1. The county and school system operate completely separately. The county commissioners have no power whatsoever to tell the school board how to operate or budget or spend. Both tax bills show up on the same paper and are handled by the county tax commissioner but each body sets its own tax rate.

 

2. The school superintendent is hired by the elected school board. The superintendent post was formerly an elected office but, by state law, has been a hired administrative position for well over a decade.

 

3. Pickens County does have a school tax exemption. In Pickens County there is a full exemption of school taxes for people over 62 years old who make less than $25,000 a year. About 550 property owners take advantage of it.

 

4. School taxes make up the largest portion of your total tax bill. School taxes have decreased the past two years by small amounts. The student population has been flat in recent years, not growing much over the past five years. This year the school system has budgeted to collect $21.4 million in local property taxes as part of their $45 million total budget. The county will collect $10.9 million in local property tax as part of their total $25.5 million budget.

 

5. Pickens schools rank fairly high statewide, usually beating other north Georgia counties but not posting scores as high as the metro area schools.

 

6. Renters do not receive property tax bills but their landlords do and you can be sure that rental properties are taxed, just like residential. An argument put forward a few times that parents living in rental housing are getting a free ride for their children’s education is ludicrous.

 

7. There is no avoiding the property tax bill. Even if a property goes into foreclosure or an owner abandons it, the bank or next owner will find past-due tax bills waiting on them. Sooner or later the bill will be paid by someone.

 

8. The tax base is the total value of all taxable property in the county. It also includes equipment, some inventory, and personal items like boats. But the vast majority comes from residential housing. The total tax digest value last year was $1.388 billion. When this rises, the county and schools receive more revenue with the same tax (millage) rate. So some years they cut the tax rate but still get more revenue.

 

9. Gated communities pull big weight in the digest. In Pickens County, the gated communities of Bent Tree (9 percent) and Big Canoe (12-13 percent) make up more than 20 percent of the tax base. The city of Jasper, including all the commercial properties, accounts for 11-12 percent of the tax base.

 

10. The process of how to increase/change the current exemption is convoluted. At this stage the Pickens GOP will put a straw poll on their May primary ballot. The local democrats chose to not include a straw poll. The results of this poll are not binding. They  give the county, school and state officials a starting point in developing a new exemption that can be put to a county-wide vote later.

Appreciating Pickens through others’ eyes

For the last several years our editor has volunteered to lead one of the Marble Festival quarry tours. These are easily the highlight of the festival, especially for  out-of-towners. Over the past three decades, the Chamber has carried hundreds of passengers around the county, traversing our scenic roads and stopping at the Marble Museum in Nelson and at the working marble operations of Blue Ridge Marble & Granite, Polycor, Imerys and Huber.

All the marble companies do fantastic jobs with friendly and knowledgeable real life marble miners on hand to answer the dozens of questions that range from geologic (how deep does the marble vein run?) to the routine (how does the water get in the quarries?)

Our editor this year had a group from Alpharetta who got lost on the way here, missed their original tour, had already spent way too long on a bus, and weren’t in the best of moods.

But by the time they saw all the vintage photos at the Nelson Marble Museum and had a marble carver discuss making VA headstones, carving flowers, and other finer points of his work, the morning snafus were long-forgotten. In fact, they were engrossed, wishing their tour wasn’t being cut short by a scheduled return to the metro area.

Another group up from Savannah who didn’t take the tour asked why the festival is called the Marble Festival? When they found out Pickens County is the Marble Capital of the World, and that our marble was used to make the Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery headstones they were impressed, interested, and wanted to know more. 

Growing up around the marble here, with large blocks of it visible on roadsides, you can come to take it for granted. Tate Elementary, the Tate House, the county courthouse and the old convict camp on Camp Road are all made of marble, but because we drive by them all the time we may not appreciate how special they are. Out of towners, however, are amazed. 

When you take into account those reactions from people on quarry tours and tourists’ reactions to our marble buildings, then see people at the festival leaving with the largest “scrap” pieces of white stone they can carry, you realize our heritage is not something to take lightly.

Unfortunately, as explained to the tour group, barring Tate Day (Saturday, Nov. 4th) and the Marble Festival, the quarries and mines are working industries and for obvious reasons the public is not allowed to wander in and ask questions. The Nelson Marble Museum is open but won’t have guides and may not have anyone on hand depending on what business is underway in city hall.

As we have editorialized before, particularly regarding the mostly unused Tate Depot, it’s a tough budgetary call to operate historic attractions. Would there really be enough visitors to cover salaries and management? Our editor will attest that the group he guided around the county wanted to come back and spend more time, but you have to reach others - no small feat, but a worthwhile goal.

Also not to be overlooked are comments about our quaint back roads. 

The difference from the metro-area was easy to see by the expression of the Alpharetta bus driver who was skeptical when told he could leave his bus sitting in a Nelson street for a few minutes.

The rural lifestyle and views from Jasper are also an asset we need to foster. It is becoming more-and-more unusual to have a place you can drive around without constant congestion and with nice scenery.

For both the monuments of stone and solitude on back roads, we should all be appreciative of Pickens County.