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Staff Editorials

Proceed, but with caution, on senior tax exemption

The Pickens County Seniors For Change meeting last week, where nearly 150 concerned residents came to hear about next steps for getting a senior tax exemption here, was  the largest meeting we’ve covered in months. 

We’re always thrilled to see citizens speak their minds, but we were glad our state senator Steve Gooch was there to offer reasonable precautions about the long-term implications of a tax exemption. 

Three things he said stuck out. 

First: “If you take away half the people in this room that are paying, the other half have to make up the difference unless the expenses are cut. If you eliminate half the taxpayers in the system the burden is a shift to the people that are still paying.” 

Second: “Whatever you put forward will pass. I can almost assure you. Be careful what you ask for because you’re probably going to get it,” Gooch said. 

Third: He said in every county he’s worked with on these has been a “significant” increase to the millage rate after an exemption passed.

Like commission chair Rob Jones (who was wrongly described at the meeting as backing the group) said, we’re not opposed to exploring the dollars and cents of what an expanded exemption would look like. (Pickens currently offers a full exemption for residents over 62 who have a household income of less than $25,000). 

However, this is not time to be hasty. Poor planning and research now could lead to disaster. And once passed, it can’t be quickly, if ever, reversed.

Gooch likened removing or changing an exemption once it’s in place as hard as taking away Social Security benefits.

According to the US Census, Pickens County has almost a 21 percent senior citizen population. If we enact something like Gilmer County – a 100 percent exemption for anyone 65 and older with no limitations, a.k.a. the Cadillac Plan – that’s a big slice of the taxpayer pie that we would need to make up. 

We realize Pickens Seniors for Change is looking at several types of exemption plans but we think Gooch is right that whatever referendum gets on the ballot as a straw poll will have overwhelming support, and because of this we need to be especially careful. 

Like Gooch, we urge our elected officials, Pickens Seniors for Change members and other residents involved in the process to take time and formulate the best option for the entire county, which includes not only seniors and seniors on fixed incomes, but young families, business owners and everyone else. 

Our commission board and school board, who have gone back and forth about who responsible for getting the ball rolling, need to belly up to the bar and work together because this issue is not going away anytime soon. 

We know our elderly population can struggle if they are on fixed income and we want to support them, but this is a big change and we need to do it right the first time.  

 

Local government should go big or go home with plans

By Dan Pool, Editor

A retired friend with proven credentials in government and business who now calls this area home was having lunch with me recently. He did not want to be named but gave a perfect example of how Pickens County is regressive when it comes to planning.

Consider the idea of the mountain bike proposed by a land trust for north Pickens and the county leaders’ reactions. [Please note this has nothing to do with the actual merits of that proposal.]

When it was first mentioned, the government response was essentially a combination of the following: we need to look into this; might be something good; we’ll try to help.

Nowhere was there reference of whether a passive park in north Pickens fits or does not fit into our long-range recreation goals. 

A more progressive government, according to my experienced friend, would have immediately been able to assess it based on their long-range plans. Are more recreation areas a goal of the county? Or have the taxpayers generally said they prefer government to focus on traditional sports fields?

Whenever something like this comes up, it’s like reinventing a wheel in Pickens County.

Adding more planning meetings may seem like a minor point, but it substantially changes the way the local governments operate. It switches from decisions based on what the top officials feel at the spur of the moment to what is developed through planning processes, written down and formalized. It does not rule-out revision or improvisation, but is a recognized starting point.

It’s true the county has a Joint Comprehensive Plan that ludicrously runs through 2028 but it’s rarely referred to and never publicly checked to see if we are working towards the listed goals.

The document, running around 100 pages with a lot of graphics, is vaguely encouraging but short on nuts and bolts.

For example, the current comprehensive plan notes that “goods producing job growth is declining” and that 51 percent of our working residents commute out of the county.

It then gives 13 different measures to promote economic development including “expand business and industrial recruitment efforts” as though it were that simple.

One of the more interesting notes of the plan which, includes input from Jasper, Nelson and Talking Rock, is under infrastructure (page 60), “Consider the formation of an independent water and sewer authority to plan and manage services county-wide. (The City of Jasper does not concur with this.)” The italics are in the plan.

This plan alone makes a decent first step towards a lot of improvements, but what is lacking is a champion. Some leadership from the commissioners or others, perhaps our magistrate judge who is working to promote more planning, is needed to take what is essentially a dead document and put it into action.

After all it took Tom Brady on the field, not just the Patriots’ game plan, to win the Super Bowl (sorry Falcons fans). 

We’d challenge our commissioners and public officials to be ambitious. Throw out some big ideas. Maybe one reason Pickens County is not progressing as much as some want is no one is daring to dream a better future.

Whether it is recreation areas, economic development opportunities or significantly expanded water and sewage, our government officials must set the course, not just react when someone shows up with an idea. What is our strategy in 10 years? What kind of benchmarks are we going to measure whether we are making progress or not? What do our leaders think are the obstacles and challenges that are holding us back? 

Next Tuesday, there is a state-required meeting on the Comprehensive Plan (see article on page 4A). If you have views of where we need to go by all means attend. If not, then at least encourage our leaders to go big or go home.

 

Say no to the avocado, think and eat for yourself

At some point in the past decade, America went crazy for avocados. Those green fruits became the healthy/trendy crowd’s meth. 

Not too many years ago most people would have been making an educated guess if they identified avocado as the base for guacamole – now you can’t swing a kale leaf without hitting a health food guru touting avocado creations. 

The green bumpy looking fruits, mostly from Mexico, are showing up everywhere, with growers aggressively marketing them as a “super food.” When you have people making a Mexican food staple into ice cream you know organic hell has broken loose.

Avocados are eaten three meals a day in everything from smoothies to sandwiches. Avocaderia, a new restaurant in New York, opened this month serving nothing but avocados in all the forms imaginable.

This madness is best captured in a funny 2013 Subway commercial where two women try to outdo each other declaring their undying devotion to the fruit. The winning woman finally introduces her son, Avocado.

The hype is so widespread that one British publication termed it the “overcado.”

This constant marketing/hipness paid off for avocado sellers. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center website, consumption of avocados has “increased significantly from 1.1 pounds per capita in 1989 to a record 7 pounds per capita in 2014.” Wikipedia cited this trend, US per capita consumption has grown from 2 pounds in 2001 to 7 pounds in 2016. 

Not bad business for something that was once known in the U.S. as the “alligator pear” and originally had a Spanish name judged too hard to pronounce by Americans, so marketers renamed it the avocado.

The problem with this new-found addiction (and what else could we call it when people are spreading it on toast?) is that avocados are only grown in a few places. A New York Times article stated, “nearly 80 percent of those avocados came from Michoacán, the only Mexican state authorized to export the fruit” because of concerns of pests in other areas of Mexico. Other South American countries grow some and California does as well, but not enough to meet the skyrocketing demand.

Unfortunately, Michoacán’s main avocado breeding area is also the key migration stop for western monarch butterflies. Those cool orange-and-black butterflies are being decimated out west because Mexican farmers are cutting every tree in sight to grow more avocados to feed a trend that will probably be as dead as acai berry elixir and pomegranate-love by the time their avocado trees grow. [Note: eastern monarchs migrate to Florida.]

Those awesome butterflies travel all the way from Canada (multi-generational flights). But instead of finding their usual over-wintering trees they are going to find a bunch of avocados rotting in the field because American foodies will probably have changed their love-affair to beets or guava (whatever that is). One online publication predicts cauliflower will be the next shining star in the fitness firmament.

The same New York Times article found that between 1974 and 2011, about 110,000 acres of forest across Michoacán’s central highlands were turned into avocado orchards, according to a study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

It’s not that we are suddenly butterfly huggers and we admit to liking guacamole. It’s not purely environmental reason this is noxious; it’s mainly the whole trend-following culture that gets us riled up. In this case it’s further so, because you know many of these avocado devotees would launch into a foodie diatribe over someone eating a Big Mac. Just look at quinoa, similarly hip foodie fare.  The Peruvian grain tripled in price between 2000 and 2014. The UN even branded 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa. 

As with so many things, our culture-obsessed society pounces with mouths wide-open on what’s popular at the moment – as though all you have to do to be healthy and hip is eat avocados. Show a couple of celebrities with toned bodies slicing avocado into a blender and the next thing you know a population of butterflies is wiped out.

 

Dogs like to ride, not sit in hot cars

By Christie Pool

Staff writer

Serious dog lover

 

My dogs love to ride. Correction: one of my dogs loves to ride in the car. The others just get really excited about going somewhere, even if they don’t particularly enjoy the trip.

When I say love: Shadow, our 9-year-old, long, black-haired sweetie of a mutt, seems happiest when his head is stuck out the window, ears blowing straight up from the wind, and nose sniffing countless new smells. Our other “big dog” Boston just likes being loaded into a car and hanging out, doing something besides sitting on the porch or walking around the neighborhood with me. She likes riding, but she doesn't love it the way Shadow does. The third dog, a 10-pound Bichon - well let's just say his spoiled little self much prefers sitting in a lap than riding. 

That being said, a couple of weeks ago I loaded the dogs into the Jeep and ran to Walmart. It was a cool, brisk morning at our house, in the upper 40s. While driving into town, I noticed it already warming up during the 15 minute ride. I parked beside a small tree giving some shade (even though it was likely still in the low 50s but a little shade is always better). I rolled down the windows enough so the dogs could stick their heads out but not so much they could jump out and run off in search of an adventure (or a nearby restaurant). 

I rushed through the store, grabbing needed items hastily. Arriving back at my car, I noticed all three dogs had their tongues hanging out, panting a little. I was surprised. Sitting in the car I realized it was indeed stuffy. I cranked the car and started home, rolling down the windows for the obligatory sticking out of heads (the dogs, not me). Looking down at the console, the thermometer said 57 degrees. 

Doesn't seem too bad, right? Even at sub-60 degrees it doesn’t take long for a car’s interior to heat up to uncomfortable levels - especially for animals. I felt terrible. They weren’t hot, but I doubt they were comfortable. 

While good-intentioned - I just wanted to make them happy and let them ride along with their faces in the wind - I came dangerously close to being THAT person who leaves their dogs in a too-hot car. And that was at 57 degrees.

According to a Stanford University study, when it’s 72 degrees outside, the temperature inside our cars can heat up to 116 degrees within an hour. At 80 degrees outside, the temperature can heat up to 99 degrees within 10 minutes according to the study.

Ninety-nine degrees! In 10 minutes! And rolling down the windows has been shown to have little effect on the temperature inside a car, according to the Humane Society of the United States. A dog can only withstand a high temperature for a short time before suffering nerve damage, heart problems, liver damage, brain damage or even death. 

Animals can sustain brain damage or even die from heatstroke in just 15 minutes. Beating the heat is extra tough for dogs as they can only cool themselves by panting and by sweating through their paw pads. 

Now that temps are consistently in the 80s (think 100+ degrees inside a car), please remember that while your dogs may love to ride, they do not like sitting in a hot car.

 

Time for plan B, not dropping Obamacare subject

As you prepare to leave most doctor appointments, there is some pre-emptive discussion for a plan B. “If you’re not feeling better in a day or two ….; if you develop a weird rash… if you have nausea…”

It is frightening that there does not seem to be any plans for follow-up care, second opinions or alternative treatment with the aborted attempt last week to replace Obamacare with Trumpcare. It appears that the president and congress basically said, “Well, that didn’t work. Guess we are stuck with what we have. Good luck everyone.”

GOP politicians have railed against Obamacare as a centerpiece of campaigns for the past seven years, but when it came time to chunk it, they couldn’t decide what to replace it with – and found out it wasn’t as unpopular out in the fields and woods of their districts as they first supposed.

It is a massive, complex bit of legislation and the fact that President Trump and Congressman Paul Ryan couldn’t fix the problems in the first few months of the new administration isn’t surprising.

It is disappointing that it now seems Washington is willing to tolerate a flawed product in the Affordable Care Act because they couldn’t agree on what should come next. They have essentially thrown in the towel – leaving the country to muddle on with our current healthcare mess.

It’s unacceptable for politicians in Washington from both parties to botch a process this badly, then walk away with their hands up. Making it more frustrating is you can hear the tone in statements that the Democrats feel like they have won something and the Republicans are waiting to pounce on any problem with the ACA to assail the Democrats.

The problem of the political gamesmanship is it will be the American people who suffer, if a not a full “explosion,”  certainly continued problems with our healthcare.

Imagine for a moment if instead of the talk of “death panels,” the new administration had said this: “Obama got the ball rolling on improving American healthcare, but there are some serious problems and we are going to fix them?” 

Not only might the approach of fixing problems produce a more conducive environment, it would also be a lot more accurate.

It’s absolutely true that Obamacare needs serious adjustments and tinkering, but apparently the lawmakers in Washington didn’t realize that many people like the fact they got insurance for the first time through the ACA and they don’t want to change; not to mention  it is proving to be less expensive than originally projected.

The Affordable Care Act did start a change/reform in healthcare in this country, but it was only a start, hopefully not set in stone.

There are very real problems with the individual cost to many people who want insurance, and the fact that some people don’t want to buy the insurance even in the face of fines and issues with other mandates. It also bodes poorly that in some states the markets are failing after insurance companies pull out.

To go back to the medical analogy earlier, it’s like a doctor saying, “Well, my first attempt didn’t stop the bleeding. Doesn’t look like this is going to turn out well, but I’m done.”

That would be unacceptable for a doctor and it’s unacceptable for our congress. Get back in there and figure out what to do.

An implosion would reflect badly on Obama’s legacy and the Democrats in the long-run, but it will also be an implosion for the businesses and people and general economy of this nation.