- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:

Aug. 18

Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, on elected officials and their travel:

If flying to high-priced conferences, staying in full-service hotels and eating fancy dinners on the taxpayer’s dime turned local leaders into paragons of public service, nobody would question the practice.

But when elected officials - especially those in Augusta - consistently avoid ways to make local government leaner, less costly and more responsive, those receipts are enough to make taxpayers choke on their TV dinners.

When was the last time you felt your local government ran better because your elected leaders attended conferences?

Just look at the city of Augusta, where free-wheeling commissioners already have exceeded their $26,300 travel budget for the year by nearly $2,000.

One commissioner, Bill Lockett, went on trips this year at a rate of one per month, proving himself again to be among the most frequent of fliers. Records from 2013 and 2014 show he racked up more than 20 trips and nearly $10,000 in expenses.

He, with commissioners Bill Fennoy, Marion Williams and Alvin Mason, dipped into former City Administrator Fred Russell’s travel account last year to go to events in New Orleans and Austin, Texas.

Whatever wisdom officials are gaining by traveling to far-flung conferences and meetings, there’s scant evidence they’re bringing that wisdom back to help the city function better.

If commissioners actually learn something at a convention, why not share? Give a presentation before the full commission detailing what information they gleaned that actually could improve Augusta. It would be enlightening to their peers - and their constituents, who footed the bill for the trip.

This same commission hardly hesitated to hike property taxes a whopping 22 percent and soak residents with a new monthly stormwater fee. And commissioners had the nerve to lament the midyear travel-fund shortfall during a recent meeting, with one commissioner seeming to insist he had some sort of right to guilt-free travel on the taxpayer’s dime because of all he supposedly does for constituents.

“The commission gets $12,000 a year and we work 24-7. People think they own you,” Williams complained. “The city gives me a phone and I get the grief. That’s all I get.”

Williams should be reminded that he was elected to serve. If serving is such a burden, and the “grief” is unbearable, he has the freedom to step down.

And how about the $10,000 trip that two Columbia County commissioners and several county employees took to New York to finalize a county bond issue? It sounds like an unfunny joke: How many county officials does it take to sign a Wall Street contract? One to hold the pen, and a half-dozen to have dinner and cocktails.

Columbia County’s administrator says elected officials there tend to “underspend” their travel budget. But that budget is at a whopping $60,000 - more than double that of Augusta-Richmond County, which has twice as many elected commissioners. It gives one pause to question just how conservative that county’s elected officials are with the people’s money.

They, with their wives and other county employees, racked up a nearly $3,600 dinner tab last spring at Ruth’s Chris Steak House before an Association County Commissioners of Georgia convention in Savannah.

Do officials from both counties realize how profligate such spending makes them look? If they did, they might be persuaded to cut travel budgets and reallocate the funds to provide better services to the people they were elected to serve.

Noted economist Milton Friedman once said that nobody spends someone else’s money as wisely as they spend their own. For public servants, that way of thinking should be reversed. They should be even more careful with other people’s money.

Online:

https://chronicle.augusta.com

___

Aug. 15

The Brunswick (Georgia) News on plans to build security training facility for State Department’s diplomatic personnel:

All records and studies obtained by Rep. Buddy Carter and other members of Georgia’s delegation to the U.S. Congress point to this indisputable fact: plans to build a security training center for the State Department’s diplomatic personnel is pork barrel politics at its best.

It would be spending millions of tax-dollars the nation does not have on something in Virginia that is already available just three states away.

Pork barrel projects have contributed to the country’s astronomical debt, and it appears there are those in Congress who don’t mind adding more pork to the heavy load. Apparently bringing home the bacon, their personal political careers and re-elections, is more important than the financial solvency of an entire nation.

It’s why they are pushing, pushing, pushing to build a training facility and staff it with the necessary personnel at Fort Pickett in Blackstone, Virginia, even though a few tweaks and add-ons here and there at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center would fill the need at a much, much lower cost to the taxpayers.

Rep. Carter, whose district includes Georgia’s coastal counties, found proof of this in records that were hard to obtain from the General Services Administration. The GSA, which is supposed to be an independent, politically unattached arm of Congress, has known that FLETC would be the best deal for the nation and all parties involved, yet it supported construction and staffing of an all-new facility for the State Department. The question is, why? The next question is, how many more projects in this nation have received a go-ahead against the best interest of the taxpayers this way? Perhaps that is something Rep. Carter and Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson should begin investigating.

Considering Congress is chipping away at the military, despite all the threats that exist today, and considering it is trying hard to find a way to reduce what is being returned to retired Americans what millions have paid into all their lives, one might be inclined to deduce that elected officials and the departments they oversee care more about securing their own political future than securing the nation against its enemies.

Online:

https://www.thebrunswicknews.com

___

Aug. 18

Macon (Georgia) Telegraph on creating possible passenger rail line service between Macon to Atlanta:

God bless him, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert doesn’t mind going up against extremely long odds. There have been dreams of Macon to Atlanta passenger rail line service since the last Nancy Hanks II pulled away from the Terminal Station in 1971. As the new century dawned, former Mayor C. Jack Ellis was so convinced rail was on the horizon that with great fanfare, he took a group of dignitaries from Atlanta to Macon and on to Savannah using a special Amtrak train in 2001. Amtrak, at the time, was pushing a $12 billion measure through Congress for high-speed rail.

Cost has always been a huge obstacle and there have been many proposals, but not an inch of track has been laid between Macon and Atlanta. We have, though, learned the difference between passenger rail service and high-speed passenger service. The two existing rail lines between the two cities, both owned by Norfolk Southern, would take a great deal of work to be able to handle even moderate-speed service, not to mention high-speed service, which generally begins at 90 mph and up. Aside from speed, both rail lines are increasingly busy with freight - and with the deepening of the Port of Savannah, rail freight traffic will only increase.

There have also been efforts to prove there is a market for rail service between the two cities. Buses pulled out of Macon daily starting in late 2001 headed up Interstate 75 to return in the evening - and though convenient, buses, like automobiles, get stuck in Atlanta traffic. So why is rail still attractive for some, including Macon’s mayor? One is air quality. Build more and larger roads to accommodate more vehicles and air quality goes down. Air quality is important because it is one of the factors the Air Force examines during the BRAC process. Will rail service between Macon and Atlanta help with the metro area’s traffic problems? Maybe, but as frustrating as traffic is around Atlanta, the city doesn’t rate in the Top 10 when it comes to congestion and commute times.

What rail would do - at a cost of probably $1 billion or more (2010 study said $400 million) - is grow Middle Georgia. Reichert’s idea of pulling local mayors together to form a coalition is a good place to start and may pay off in other areas. The Federal Railroad Administration may be able to provide grants that could jump-start a feasibility study. That along with an update of the rail plan from the Georgia Department of Transportation should give advocates something substantial to sell or tell them to stand down.

Europe holds an example of what high-speed rail can do where speeds of 125 mph and higher are commonplace. While expensive to build the infrastructure, it’s easy to imagine an Atlanta-area executive hopping on a train and 45 minutes later pulling into a station and heading to her mini-mansion that costs less than half of the going price of Atlanta real estate. Maybe her final destination is Savannah? A pipe dream? Maybe, but someone has to provide a vision.

Online:

https://www.macon.com


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