On the hunt for 'Best Of' 

Among Georgia politicos, it's worse than you think

Let's face it. Local officials -- case in point, most Gwinnett County commissioners -- are only slightly higher on the list of those likely to cop Creative Loafing's Godalmighty Best Political Leader Award than Saddam Hussein.

True, unlike the Iraqi strongman, I'm not aware that the Gwinnett jefes shoot political opponents (those tactics are generally reserved for DeKalb). The Gwinnett pols are slowly murdering the community, however. Stupidity and greed can be as lethal as an AK-47.

Confession: I live in Lawrenceville and have five kids in Gwinnett schools, so, yes, I'm biased as hell in favor of sane local government, something that's almost as much in short supply in Georgia as members of the William T. Sherman Fan Club.

Second confession: OK, there really isn't a CL Godalmighty Best Political Leader Award. But this is our Best Of Atlanta issue (and we do bestow a Best Politico warm 'n' fuzzy award on the much-deserving Shirley Franklin). Being a tireless laborer in the fields of truth, I set out to find my own Best Of leader -- someone who displayed courage, intelligence and integrity.

In Georgia, that is a decidedly quixotic quest.

Moreover, I wanted to pin a prize on a pol a little less visible than the high honcho of the state's biggest city.

My first thought was to give the nod to Emily Lemcke, who in 1998 won the Cherokee County Commission chairmanship on a platform of slow growth and maintaining the rural character of the area. Lemcke was a pioneer, a kick-ass populist who came to symbolize a reasonable approach to balancing growth with quality of life.

Lemcke even had the audacity to suggest that developers help pay for the financial costs they dump on the community. For that heresy, the developers could tolerate nothing less than a regime change. The building Bubbas poured tons of money into her opponent's campaign, and last month she lost a runoff election.

In defeat, however, Lemcke can be warmed by the knowledge that she inspired other visionary people to run for office in the suburban counties.

One of the inspirees is Marcia Neaton-Griggs, who two years ago won election to the Gwinnett County Commission. On the surface, N-G appears to be very calm and lucid -- although one has to question the sanity of a person who chooses to work in a high-crime area such as the commission chambers.

N-G is so rational that she was shocked when one of her appointees to the county's Planning Commission, Teresa Cantrell, pointed out that many Gwinnett schools are operating at 200 percent capacity.

Cantrell shared with me a letter Dacula students brought home. Dacula Middle School is built to hold 1,400 students, yet has an enrollment of 3,050. Dacula High's capacity is 1,475, yet 3,007 students cram the hallways. The only solution is double sessions or importing roughly 100 trailers to warehouse the student masses.

Now, N-G is an accountant, and she knows that those numbers add up to failure. Failure of a community to fulfill its obligations and, ultimately, the failure of kids who will get a second-rate education in Third World quality sardine-can schools.

N-G had an idea. It's not new (at least in civilized nations), but to utter the concept in this state isn't healthy, politically speaking. N-G mused: How about balancing development with the community's ability to provide services? The concept is called, in wonk-speak, "concurrency."

Last month, N-G proposed to her fellow commishes that they delay approving development of 175 new homes in Dacula until the county can provide adequate schools and water and sewer services. The rest of the commission treated the idea with about the same enthusiasm as if there had been an outbreak of flatulence. No one seconded N-G's motion, and with little comment the 175 homes got slam-dunk approval despite the woefully inadequate schools and infrastructure.

"Basically, I was told to sit down and shut up," N-G sighs. "It was appalling."

The other commissioners made some mumbling sounds about whether it would be legal to act responsibly. But, of course, the real story is that N-G's four compatriots are owned by the development industry. "Taxpayers Be Damned" should be emblazoned on the Gwinnett crest.

Here's the even worse part of the story. Although the development community and its government thralls stubbornly refuse to discuss the subject, every new home and mall costs the existing taxpayers thousands of dollars. Recognizing that, Gwinnett and other counties have considered imposing "impact fees," which the real estate boys want you to believe are nothing less than satanic devices to stifle Holy Economic Development.

Gwinnett approved impact fees -- which make developers pay only a sliver of the public costs of sprawl -- but current commission Chairman Wayne Hill deep-sixed the fees after he came to power a decade ago.

I couldn't find anyone at the Gwinnett government palace who could give me solid estimates for what taxpayers are forced to ante for each new home that's built. How many new cops and firefighters are needed, how much for schools, roads, and water and sewer systems.

(One incredibly moronic bit of Georgia law: It's illegal to assess impact fees for schools. I don't know if that's the result of anti-intellectualism -- reference: Cobb County -- or of colossal short-sightedness or just plain meanness on the part of developers who know that parents will always dig deep in their pockets to fund schools.)

But other states do tally such figures. For example, in Florida, a three-bedroom home will force the public to pay about $10,000 to upgrade roads and transportation systems. Impact fees in most Florida counties offset varying percentages of that -- in Tampa, developers pay about 15 percent of the transportation impact.

Florida and other states mandate that infrastructure be "concurrent" with development, and they levy the impact fees to shift some of the burden from you and me to the developers. That's called fairness.

The builders pout that those costs raise the price of housing. More likely is that the "socialism for the rich" scam we have in Georgia allows developers to reap unconscionable profits since taxpayers are being gouged to pay for almost all public costs of new sprawl.

The infrastructure costs for 100,000 new homes l a lowball estimate of what Hill and the development community want to build in Gwinnett in the next couple of decades l easily top $1.5 billion. Under the current system of padding developers' pockets, most of that will be paid by existing residents, not newcomers or builders.

Moreover, Florida has had concurrency and impact fees for decades. There's certainly no lack of growth in Florida, nor do housing prices reflect any significant variation from Georgia's.

As Planning Commissioner Cantrell says, "We're not trying to change the growth rate, but to balance growth with facilities."

What Neaton-Griggs knows is that she's now in the crosshairs. "I'm sure I'll face a well-funded opponent," she says. "Trying to talk about making sense out of what's happening, well, that's just not in the vocabularies" of most Georgia politicians.

Then again, voices such as those of N-G, are getting louder. She gets my Godalmighty Best Political Leader (Suburban Contingent) Award.

Senior Editor John Sugg is also one Godalmighty determined politician -- he anticipates that 7th Congressional District voters will propel him to Congress Nov. 5. "Just remember," he says with his well-known political canniness, "to write my name 'John F. Sugg.' 'F' as in 'freedom.'" To reach Sugg with congratulatory messages, call 404-614-1241, or write john.sugg@suggforcongress.com.

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