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Commentary: How much government can we afford?
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Frank Norton Jr.

Norton’s other thoughts

  • Norton Native Intelligence is fully supportive of SPLOSTs as funding mechanisms;  it’s the accountability and stewardship of the expenditures that gives us concern.
  • Evaluate “gifts” or “grants” of state or federal money based on long-term recurring costs to the citizens. Look carefully at employment stimulus grants for the same unintended consequences of forward financial commitments and long-term taxpayer burdens. Free is not free.
  • All counties and the state need to find a way to improve the efficiency of the education delivery system to hold down costs (both secondary and primary). The lottery has been a miraculous windfall but we can no longer rely on that sustainable flow of income.
  • Reduce planning, permitting and inspection departments to a sound solid core. County governments must face the reality that there won’t be a construction development boom for eight to 10 years. They’re not needed for planning and zoning, but we also caution against shifting them to long-range planning or new ordinance creation. That’s just playing a shell game with human resources.
  • Find a way to scale back, warehouse or eliminate services that no longer serve the masses. “If it doesn’t cash-flow — let it go.”
  • Face the reality that government does not exist for the sake of employees. It exists to assist and govern nongovernment employees.
  • Become business-friendly, not revenue-enhanced. Strip laws, ordinances and fees passed over the last 10 years to the bone. Look at the full ordinance cost of enforcement and implementation.
  • Recently, it took Norton’s staff three-manpower hours to fill out three applications, produce a scaled drawing to permit a temporary “party” tent on our office front lawn, which is private property. These applications were processed by numerous government employees. Later, once erected, the tent was inspected by a fire marshal for safety. The same Lanier tent was used hundreds of times in the city. The permit cost was $5. Permits for permit sake are just one word: bureaucracy.


Over the last 10 years, the cities and counties across North Georgia, like across the nation, without really understanding the full dynamics or unintended consequences, have been building "holographic" infrastructure on the backs of the local taxpayers (individual and business).

We now shockingly realize that taxes have been the government's version of crack cocaine. Bright, gleaming police cars, gluttony pension plans, five weeks of paid vacation, double-dipping retirement and employment policies. Soaring facilities, city halls, jails, police and fire stations, courthouses and a legion of recreational "country clubs" and state-run golf courses stand as stately edifices — monuments to the glory of the politicians and the excess of the roaring economy.

It's now recognized that tax bases were annually inflated by the economic rising tide, SPLOST revenue was inflated by overzealous consumer expenditures and outrageous service fees on top of more outrageous service fees fueled the political governmental mentality akin to a "spring break gone wild" movie.

But in the words of investor Warren Buffett: "Now that the tide has gone out, we can see who's been swimming naked!"

In our haste to spread our lotteryesque windfalls, no one took into account what it really truly cost to run and staff a 424-bed jail in Jackson County; nor calculate the heating, cooling and lifeguard bills to run the Frances Meadows Aquatics and Community Center; the clipping and grass-cutting bill for thousands of acres of parks in Gwinnett County; the security staffing cost for all of the new courthouses; Gwinnett and Forsyth building expansive secondary schools and gymnasiums (better facilities than most college campuses); staff all of the fire trucks; or provide personnel to oversee hundreds of new ordinances and charges.

In a bloated economy, no one watches the store. The spin and hype of community boosterism overwhelms the psyche, envelops the mind with well-intentioned progress.

An invincibility mind set emerges: "Never, no, not here. We're different." The argument "well if we don't use the state/federal grant, we'll lose it" doesn't pass muster, either. That money isn't free; it's still the citizens' hard-earned scrip.

We now see future commissions and councils further shackling local government budgets. So today, we have roads that serve little to no purpose in South Georgia. We run Red Rabbit transportation systems that have abysmal occupancy (Did they really tint the windows so we could not see that they were empty?) and full-scale government video production facilities in many counties broadcasting meetings on cable TV to audiences of less than a handful.

We have hook-and-ladder fire trucks following two police cars and an emergency response van to every fender bender when one response vehicle might do.

Alas, we have built a great gleaming monumental infrastructure called 21st century civilization, only now the taxpayer and local businesses are trying to hurdle a bigger mountain to financially support it.

No one wants to talk about, nor touch the declining values on a county's tax base, nor — heaven forbid — approve an increase in millage rates, nor cut back on any departments budgets.

In the eyes of most local government managers, everything is sacred, everything is essential government services. While businesses have swallowed the bitter pill of downsizing, local governments have been impotent in their actions.

It's hard to fathom how they can pat themselves on the back and "hold" budgets and taxes at "par" when most North Georgia businesses have slimmed their overhead 15 to 30 percent. It's too hard to take away an entitlement once it's been given.

Raising user fees for services, permits, user fees, sprinkler fees, fire protection surcharges, water-sewer rates, garbage collection and applications is not the panacea, either. The citizens are too smart, businesses too savvy for those actions and are starting to wake up and voice their concerns, first privately in the coffee shops, then at the ballot box.

The quiet pro-business revolution is simmering. "How do we continue to feed the monster?"

Ronald Reagan said, "When a business or individual spends more than it makes, it goes bankrupt. When government does, it sends you the bill."

It's time to reprioritize government services into two buckets: "must-haves" and "like to haves," then strongly demand they shift financial resources accordingly. The pain for the most part will be temporary, the noise loud.

The stark reality is that government got too big because we thought we had unlimited sustainable resources. In the boom times, North Georgia governments artificially pumped up tax collection rates and over spent. In 2007-2009, as the revenues shrank, many local governments depleted reserves to keep things in the status quo and now face empty coffers.

We do note that some are attempting to replenish. We have all enjoyed the fruits of a hologram government dazzling the citizens with virtual magic and little or no substance.

As newly elected Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, recently said, "The citizens have demanded a smaller government — and now they are going to get it."

 Frank Norton Jr. is a Gainesville real estate executive.

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