Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Column for Dec. 30, 2010

“This would have doubled our tax base overnight.” We have heard that sort of claim before, and I am dubious. We heard that sort of claim when Sysco was looking to relocated to Selma. We heard figures about how many jobs this would bring to the town and how many homes would be built to accommodate the influx of laborers. That didn’t happen with the construction and operation of the Sysco facility. Even the executive in charge of the Selma facility bought a house in Clayton, not Selma. When large companies want to come to a town with promises of an increased tax base, jobs, and more residents, towns tend to get excited. They tend to make tax concessions, agreements to provide infrastructure, and other tax payer funded incentives. Basically, it amounts to providing corporate welfare. I don’t blame a business for going with the location that is to its greatest economic benefit.

As you may have read, Electrolux was looking at Selma as a possible location to build a new manufacturing plant. Electrolux used to be known in America only for its vacuum cleaners. I remember when my parents bought an Electrolux with the 1976 Olympics sponsorship logo decal on it. The woman who sold the vacuum was doing door to door, in home demonstrations. But the Swedish manufacturer makes a lot more than just vacuum cleaners. They also make a lot of appliances that have been showing up more and more in stores here in North America.

I am all for wooing a large business like Electrolux to build its factory in town. Though I did not necessarily want an ethanol plant in Selma a few years ago, I was all for their freedom to build one. If an area has the ability to provide the water, streets, natural gas, labor force, and real estate necessary to sustain a company, then I am all for it.

I do get concerned, however, when promises are made and plants like the Dell facility in Winston-Salem end up closing shortly after opening. I also get concerned when promises are made to be able to provide the 500 acres necessary for development. I have to be honest and say that if I was a property owner in the way of construction, I may very well take the offer to sell my property and leave. Money talks. But not everyone is willing to abandon land that may have been in the family for generations or is making money for their family, such as farm or timber land. You are only going to find 500 acre parcels in what was or is farm land around here.

What disturbs me is the possibility of eminent domain by a municipality to take land from one private property owner and give it to another private entity such as a developer or corporation on the promise of higher tax revenue for the municipality. In one of the greatest travesties of American juris prudence, that very thing was the result of Kelo vs. the City of New London, Connecticut just five years ago. The Supreme Court upheld New London’s decision to take land from a private citizen and give it to a developer for the sole purpose of potential greater revenue from land usage. The irony is that the financials never panned out for the developer and the taken land sits empty. That is, to me, one of the biggest abuses of eminent domain and unethical decisions to ever come along. Then again, that sort of dilemma may never have been an issue had Electrolux determined to build in Selma. I am, however, always vigilant in looking at such potential government abuse.

The bottom line is that though I support industrial development, feel that it is overall a good thing for the area, and would like to have seen the factory come to our little town, I would want to see all things done honestly and ethically. I would want to see development that would not cause us to give away all of our potential revenue increases as tax incentives to lure a company here and would not want to see private lands taken forcibly and given to private business in the name of the public good. Hopefully, that is how things would have gone.

It is good to see that industry is taking notice of our little gem of a location. We have railroads, easy interstate access, land, and an available labor force. Selma has now been through this drill a few times over the years. Sometimes the effort has worked, other times not. Perhaps with this unsuccessful bid, Selma will be ready for future endeavors here and other businesses will take note of the consideration of Selma for the Electrolux plant and also give us a look. I also hope that the puffery of promises of benefits to the town do not fail to deliver, as in times past.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Column for Dec. 23, 2010

“Save us from ourselves, Big Brother! Please act as a father for us because we are but stupid sheep!” Does the Johnston County’s Board of Commissioners think that this is how we all think and that is what we all need? Sorry, but I am 42 years old, a responsible adult, and don’t need a group of elected officials attempting to codify common sense for me. I had parents to teach me, I am a parent doing the same, and some things are just plain common sense.

I am going to quote from Grass Roots North Carolina, a state wide Second Amendment organization. “Johnston County commissioners are considering an ordinance to ban shooting of any kind of projectile within 600 feet of a dwelling. This would include BB and pellet guns. Upon questioning, county officials admitted that this would even include bows and arrows.” I know what has really kicked this subject into consideration, and quite honestly, it is another instance of hard case making for bad law. Because some individuals operate a veritable shooting range on private property in the county (outside of any town limits or jurisdiction), the county wants to pass an ordinance barring all county residents from shooting even a BB gun.

I am already covered by such nonsense, seeing that I live within the town limits of Selma. I am not allowed to discharge a firearm for sporting or pastime purposes in the town limits. I can see the regulation within the closer quarters of town limits more so than in the more rural areas of the county. I only have a quarter of an acre of land on which to recreate. The insanity is that Article 13, Article I, Section 13-4 of the Town of Selma code reads, “Any person using an air rifle in the town shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” I can not even take my Daisy Red Rider and plug a stray dog that threatens my children or teach my boy how to proficiently handle a BB gun in my backyard. Quite honestly, if I want to tape a paper target to my glass door in my backyard and shoot at it, that should be my business and nobody else’s.

The county is even taking it one step further. A football field is 300 feet long (100 yards x 3 feet per yard). The county wants you to have to be two entire football fields away from a house in order to shoot a firearm, bow and arrow, or even BB gun. My best friend has 3 acres out in the country. His nearest neighbor can barely be seen from his house. If I wanted to comply with the town ordinance and go to his house in rural Johnston County to shoot a BB gun or even a .22 caliber rifle, we would not be allowed to do so. And I am talking way out in the country. In my friend’s words, he lives so far out in the country that he does not get the TV show “Saturday Night Live” until Tuesday. If my friend wants to stand on his porch and shoot at targets or even psychotic squirrels, he will not be allowed to do so. He would have to be off his own property, over two football fields away from his house. That is just ridiculous.

My son just won a toy marshmallow shooting crossbow Sunday night. Will he be able to shoot it in Selma without being guilty of a misdemeanor? How about in rural Johnston County? Do we have to turn in his Nerf guns to county or town officials now as part of some Nerf buy back program? Should I have saved the receipt to return the BB gun I bought him for Christmas (he better not read this column and none of you had better tell him about it since this column is going to be published just before Christmas)?

We do not need government to save us from ourselves. When I was growing up, we rode in cars without seat belts, played with lawn darts, and carried pocket knives. We survived. We also learned how to shoot safely and away from other people. Just because a few yahoos are around does not mean that every last common sense using citizen needs to have Big Brother holding our hands or acting as a parent for us.

I don’t know about you, but I am going to contact all of my elected officials on the County Board of Commissioners and let them know that too much government regulation is just not welcome. If they don’t listen to me, I hope that they will listen to common sense from citizens during the January 3rd public hearing on the matter.


As a result of the lobbying efforts of people like myself and other citizens, I got the following email today.

-------- Original Message --------

Subject: Proposed Firearms Ordinance Hearing
Date: Mon, 20 Dec 2010 15:57:14 -0500
From: Rick Hester

From: Allen L. Mims, Jr., Chairman, Johnston County Board of Commissioners

Re: Proposed Johnston County Firearm Ordinance

As you are aware, the Johnston County Board of Commissioners was scheduled to hold a public hearing on January 3, 2011 at our 6:00pm meeting to review and discuss the adoption of a proposed firearm ordinance. I, as well as my fellow Board members, have received several communications over the last week from concerned citizens regarding the implementation of such an ordinance. In light of these concerns, the Board and I have decided to develop a workgroup, consisting of Commissioner, staff and citizen representatives, who will review the proposed firearm ordinance, address the citizen concerns and develop a revised ordinance that is mutually acceptable among us all.

Currently the workgroup will be comprised of the following members, with the possible addition of a couple more individuals:

Allen L. Mims, Jr. – Chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners
Jeffrey P. Carver – Vice Chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners
Rick J. Hester – County Manager
Steve Bizzell – Sheriff
Berry Gray – Planning Director

Citizens: Jeff Lawrence, Mike Walters, Jake McAllister, Stephen Reeves, Jonathan Parker and Todd Blackburn

Therefore, the public hearing scheduled for January 3, 2011 has been postponed until further notice. Upon receipt of a revised ordinance from the workgroup, we shall re-advertise the date and time of the public hearing.

Thank you.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Column for Dec. 16, 2010

Sometimes a government action banning or outlawing something is a good thing. Other times, it is not. Then there are the cases in which I am very libertarian in my leanings and would rather the government just stay out of the way and let stupid people be stupid. For instance, I am extremely neutral on the subject of gambling.

Contrary to many of my Christian brethren, I was not in opposition to a state lottery here in North Carolina. I was, however, very opposed to the way in which the lottery was passed through the NC General Legislature. I thought it was done sneakily and underhandedly. Even so, I have been known to purchase an occasional lottery ticket. I don’t buy many or often, but when I have a few spare dollars in my wallet, I don’t mind purchasing a chance at winning millions of dollars.

In a short while, my wife and I will be on a cruise ship heading to the western Caribbean. I am told that there will be casinos aboard ship, and I very well may partake of them. I look at it as no more of a waste of my money than a trip to a Chuck E. Cheese to play video games with my son. I have wasted far more money on over-taxation, getting ripped off by vendors, various business schemes I have tried over the years, and the like.

As with my willingness to buy lottery tickets and try a casino, I have no issue with people who wish to play with internet gambling or digital poker machines. Internet cafes that sprang up across the state were, in my opinion, a legitimate business. They provided a legal service that people wanted and were willing to spend money upon. Well, they were legal, anyway. Now they are being forced out of business. The State of North Carolina, reaching its tentacles of regulation and control, has decided to outlaw such businesses.

I have yet to have a theologian explain to my satisfaction any Biblical problem with gambling. I have read many interpretations, extrapolations, and suppositions. The Bible deals with stewardship, covetousness, greed, and the love of money. There are plenty of ways that gambling can cause sin in those areas, but purchasing a lottery ticket, enjoying a casino once in a while, and visiting an internet cafe does not have to be such. I approach it the same way as I do alcohol and pornography. Both are legal products. I do not have much use for the latter, but I occasionally imbibe the former. Alcohol, contrary to many legalistic people in Christianity, is not expressly forbidden within the Bible. Excessive use of it, however is. Government regulation is not the best method of keeping people from abusing alcohol. Some have a problem with addiction to alcohol, but as history has shown, prohibition was a horrible idea. Hard cases and legalistic, self-righteous, religious views often make for bad law.

Pornography is not specifically banned, but lust and adultery are. The very purpose of pornography is to fuel one’s lust, so it is, in my opinion, sin. I partake of all the pornography I so choose. I just choose not to sit at home and download videos and pictures off the internet or buy porno videos. I know where I can get them cheap, but they just don’t interest me.

There are people who have problems with both alcohol and pornography. There are people who have problems with gambling. However, the total ban on any or all will only fuel Al Capone type figures who will find a way to capitalize on the illegality of it, just as Capone did with gambling and alcohol during the Prohibition era.

When there is a choice between liberty and legislated morality, I tend to choose liberty and to allow God to deal with the hearts of people, provided that exercising one’s liberty does not harm others (such as is the case with abortion). Because a few knuckleheads have problems with gambling is no reason to prohibit everyone else from enjoying a personal vice or diversion. If we are going down that road, why don’t we ban automobiles and return Prohibition as a Constitutional amendment? Of course that is ridiculous. It is hypocritical of the State of North Carolina to enact a lottery but to ban private gambling. If it is a matter of legislating morality, then the state should outlaw topless bars, thus “killing two birds with one stone”, ban the sale of Playboy and Hustler magazines, and require all internet service providers to block pornographic web sites from reaching North Carolina homes. I guess the government just doesn’t like the competition for gambling revenue.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Column for Dec. 9, 2010

I have known for a couple of months now about the impending property re-evaluation for all of Johnston County. I know that every eight years, the county has to re-evaluate property values. If you are a property owner and have not received your new property value statement, you will. I got mine about a week ago. I bought my house in Selma just over eight years ago. Shortly after the purchase, I got my first re-evaluation. The tax value went up significantly, but it was not unreasonable at the time. Not this time.

I doubt very seriously that my property value has increased $26,530 in just eight years, especially in a down economy. Here in Selma, I see plenty of houses for sale, many of which have been able to sell for a long time. I have done some property value comparison just within the last six months because I was looking at refinancing my mortgage to a lower rate. I used two different services to look at my estimated property value, and both did not have my property value as high as Johnston County claims. I don’t know on which planet the value estimator was working, but it sure wasn’t in my neighborhood.

I understand the reason for a property re-evaluation. When you assess taxes based upon property value, only a re-evaluation of the property’s retail value will raise the taxation revenue per property. That means a property tax increase. In my case, this means an annual increase of $347.54 in my property taxes. That also translates to an increase in my mortgage payment of about $57.92 to make up for the shortage in my escrow account plus the tax increase itself. Needless to say, I have documents refuting that much of an increase in value and will be appealing that newly assessed value. If I am going to pay property taxes, then I want it to be fair.

Speaking of property taxes and my home, I have been contemplating what I wrote two weeks ago about the almost $22,500 that the Town of Selma wants to spend in taxpayer money (assuming that it will come from some public funding source) just for a consultant to make the application for a historic district designation for parts of Selma’s residential neighborhoods. The more I think about it, the more I find better uses for that $22,500.

Anyone who has walked along Selma’s old residential neighborhoods knows how horribly the sidewalks have held up. For years I have been squawking about how decrepit some sidewalks are. Not only are they not pleasant to see, they are a great safety hazard. I can not tell you how many times I have tripped over the uneven concrete pads just in front of my own home and on my block. That is a huge liability for the town. I used to get paid to help eliminate safety hazards, and I cringe every time I walk along my street.

I have not, nor will I formally petition for the horrendous sidewalk to be improved in front of my house. Why? Because the town ordinance states that “One hundred (100) percent of the cost of the improvements shall be assessed” (Chapter 14, Article III, Sec. 14-47 of the Selma Town Code) to me. Why should I have to pay to fix a sidewalk that the town has neglected for a half century? I don’t want to have the cost for the town’s negligence assessed against me and “the assessments shall be a lien on the property assessed...for collection in the same manner as property taxes”. (Chapter 14, Article III, Sec. 14-55) I don’t own that sidewalk, but I would be taxed for its improvement just because it is in front of my house. If I have to pay for it, I should own it. If I own it, I should be able to put up a toll gate on it and require pedestrians pay me a quarter to walk on my sidewalk.

That $22,500 would begin to pay for a whole lot of concrete that would eliminate a whole lot of potential liability for the town. Just one trip and fall could cost the town a whole lot more than that $22,500. I am baffled about priorities in some municipalities. I have said for years, “take care of what you have” before tackling new facilities or “things that would be nice to have”. Take care of infrastructure such as sidewalks, streets, water and sewer lines, and the like before worrying about things like historical neighborhood designations. After all, Selma is about to get an increase in property tax because of the re-evaluation done by Johnston County. I aim to give up as little as possible on that front, however.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Column for Dec. 2, 2010

Who controls the purse strings in Johnston County? I thought it was the Johnston County Board of Commissioners. At least that is who I thought had the power to control county money, levy taxes, and portion out money as they see fit. That is why we elected them. There is a quote from the movie "Dune" which says, "He who controls the spice, controls the universe!" In the case of Johnston County, it had better be the Board of Commissioners that control the spice, not the Board of Education.

I have been reading with interest the rhetoric from the Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools about the budget crunch here in our little county. This is nothing new and it is nothing applicable only to Johnston County. But how affairs have been conducted has been a media skirmish. The Board of Commissioners is asking for money back from the school budget. The School Board made counter offers and asserted that any further budget cuts would be devastating to the county's school system.

I don't buy that assertion for one minute. The schools will continue, even if on a shoestring budget. There are tons of wasteful and foolish things we can cut from the budget and still provide a decent education. I guarantee that if I was given a line item budget, I could find plenty of areas from which to trim expenses. Just because something is a good idea does not mean we should be doing it, providing it, or spending money on it. Right off the top of my head, I can think of several areas from which to cut, including middle school athletics, the superintendent's salary, and the pay increases given to the administrative office staff.

The one sacred cow that I would not mind seeing slaughtered is the threat of having to do away with some staff positions in the school system. Stupidly, 330 staff positions were being funded by federal stimulus dollars. It is just plain common sense to me that anything funded by the federal stimulus spending travesty (that my grandchildren will be paying for in years to come) will not be funded after that money runs out. So why then did the Johnston County School System depend upon that money to fund school worker salaries? It makes sense to me that when that money ceases, so do those jobs. We should never count short-term serendipity money as a basis for long term spending and employee retention. That is just plain foolish.

I was reading Superintendent of Schools Ed Croom explanation about how the school system accounts for the multi-million dollar reserve fund. If you are counting on a "reserve fund" rather than general funds to pay for construction projects, then something is amiss in how we are accounting for money. I have read some conflicting accounts from different sources that do not jive with that assertion, so the truth has got to be somewhere out there waiting to be fully explained to the populace of Johnston County. Figures have ranged from $23 million to $32 million of reserve funds and investment accounts.

If it is true that the school system has that much in undesignated funds, then I think that some taxpayers in Johnston County are due a refund. If these funds are indeed designated for construction costs, then the accounting needs to be made plain.

One thing that bothered me about this whole melee was that after the Board of Commissioners requested money back from the school system, the Board of Education countered with a lower figure with a stipulation attached that they could get the money back at any time. I don't see where they are in a position to be able to set terms. Another disappointment was that School Board Chairman Larry Strickland decided to hold a press conference in which he criticized the Board of Commissioners for being fiscally prudent in cutting the budget to the school system. I am now having second thoughts about that vote I cast on November 2nd.

The Board of Commissioners is supposed to be the elected body to control the spice. They supply the money, have the power to raise revenue, and should have the say about rescinding any budgets. Period. End of sentence.