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Staff Editorials

Meth has crept back with a vengeance

The headline of a NY Times article published this February sums up the  meth crisis resurgence - “Meth, the Forgotten Killer, Is Back. And it’s Everywhere.”

“Everywhere” definitely includes Pickens County, which has seen two massive busts in the past month. Local authorities confiscated one kilo in the first, off Jordanaire Road, and 300 grams on the most recent, on Burgess Road.

“Everywhere” also includes Gwinnett County, where just last week the Drug Enforcement Administration seized $2 million worth of meth inside painted Disney figurines. Over $3 million was seized in Dahlonega last fall. The DEA is now calling meth - not opioids - the number one threat to the area. Many experts say the meth crisis is being overshadowed by the deadly opioid epidemic. 

“Everybody talks about the opioid crisis, and there is no doubt about that crisis, but by far our number one threat is methamphetamine in this region,” the DEA told an Atlanta news station.

Pickens County Sheriff Donnie Craig said the two raids here “will make an impact – at least temporarily” in the local supply. Unfortunately “temporarily” is a sad fact we all recognize. 

According to the Georgia Meth Project, meth is at the highest levels of availability and purity since 2005 “largely due to trafficking by the Mexican drug cartels, now the number one source of all meth sold in the U.S.” The massive bust in Gwinnett was meth from Mexico. Atlanta was already recognized as a major hub for the drug, even before the latest mega-bust. 

Statistics are alarming: According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, their Office of Field Operations seizures for meth are up from 14,100 pounds in 2012 to over 44,000 pounds last year. This year there has already been 33,200 pounds seized. U.S. Border Patrols seizures are up from 3,700 pounds in 2012 to 10,300 pounds last year. To compare, other drug seizures from the federal agency are either down or only up slightly.  

The CDC reports a 255 percent increase in deaths related to meth use since 2005, reaching 6,000 total deaths in 2015.

Meth use tapered off for a while because of Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act and a crackdown on the over-the-counter cold medicine used to make meth. Henry Brownstein, author of "The Methamphetamine Industry in America: Transnational Cartels and Local Entrepreneurs" tracks meth production from small labs in America prior to the crackdown, to Mexican cartels and their “super labs” where production has now been perfected, and the drug purified and is now made cheaper. 

"It's cheap and it's very effective,” one DEA agent said, “and the high lasts a long time and it's very addictive.”

  Even though meth doesn’t kill as many people as opioids do, it causes paranoia and aggression, destroys users’ bodies (remember the Faces of Meth campaign?) and tears families apart. Babies are born addicted to the drug, and the local DFCS office has said meth is the number one reason children are removed from their homes. Kids are neglected and abused.

What can be done? The fight is a challenging one, with obvious need for national, state and local law enforcement officers to be vigilant and keep it from coming across the border, and to confiscate it if it does make it into our cities and town. But as a community, we need to help stop the demand. 

We can all make efforts to educate people about the devastating consequences of meth use and addiction, and find ways to increase and improve education, prevention, and treatment, and hopefully get a grip on this drug that is devastating our communities. 

Squandered resources

Hopefully the city police are lenient with indecency charges along Spring Street. After all, the public was told more than a year ago there would be public bathrooms coming to that location.

In October 2016, when the city purchased the former medical offices adjacent to the green space on the corner of Spring and Main they expressed intentions of remodeling for public restrooms. The downtown development authority spent $165,000 for the buildings and property to put the plan in place. The purchase made sense: You have a downtown area and public greenspace without a restroom.

The mayor was quoted as saying he had been in office for 24 years and not a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask where’s the bathroom in downtown. 

Yet, well over a year later, downtown still does not have a pot to pee in (pardon the cliche). The building’s future is trapped in a planning committee black hole from which nothing can break free.

While budget scrutinizing is always prudent, in this case they are already in for $165,000 so finish the job.

This is a classic case of squandering a resource that government is so often criticized for. Imagine a business buying property, then letting it just sit there? Wouldn’t happen in the private sector where company money versus tax dollars are in the game.

Businesses need to be nimble, while governments can afford to squabble, stall and study some more.

Mayor John Weaver has been critical of the council’s footdragging on the way to the toilets. However, his past record  has several ignominious examples of valuable assets sitting dormant.

One of the biggest examples and what could be a real game changer in town is  Doris Wigington Park in the Lumber Company Road area. It’s a great wooded property, within walking distance of one of the largest residential areas (Arbor Hills). The city had the foresight to buy it, but apparently lacks the commitment to develop it.

It became an issue in the last council election race when it was called the “raper park.” Our reporting found no serious crime has ever been reported there, but people felt it had a generally creepy feel. Some Progress readers responded to our previous story that they truly enjoyed having the trails (though poorly designed) to themselves and others thought they would use it if the city added  basic amenities, like attractive entrances/parking, a few swing sets and maybe a pavilion with  picnic tables and restrooms.

Other examples of squandered resources include:

• The green space at the south end of town. It is used – some. Nothing like it should be with creative city/event planning. A green space on the corner of downtown is a home run for any city. Other than a sporadic event or two, we have this great area only intermittently trod by human feet. Imagine the change in atmosphere if you drove by one day and saw kids playing or a family enjoying a sunny afternoon right in downtown? Talk about making Main Street appear more vibrant.

• The old horse ring road to nowhere, behind the Jasper Methodist Church. The original plans were never about traffic. The idea was to expand the downtown area with a new road complete with sidewalks, trees, street lights and  parcels where new businesses might want to locate.

• Cart paths – another idea with real potential from the mayor that never got rolling. Connect downtown to the residential areas with some paths suitable for golf carts or walking. This would give Jasper a unique feature and would be, dare we say, progressive.

For the sake of the town, we strongly encourage City Hall to get to it on these valuable projects.

 

Make America Happy Again

We Americans are an unhappy people – at least in relation to the greatness, affluence and freedom of this country.

Based on the recently released World Happiness Report for 2018, America ranks 18th in our citizen contentment, out of 159 countries. Not  horrible; we broke the top 20 in the rankings compiled for United Nations using Gallup poll data and other factors developed by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. But at least one compiler of the report remarked how surprising it is that a free democracy like America with such a high standard of living isn’t in the top 10. In fact, we’ve not been in the top 10 since the Happiness scale was first published in 2012.

There is disappointment that U.S. citizens aren’t happier. It would be like finding out  Alabama Crimson Tide fans are only fake cheering during football season.

If the results are to be believed, the Nordic countries must be doing something right as the number one happiest place this year was Finland. In the past few years it was Denmark, Switzerland and Norway at the top spot. Who’d have thought countries that are so cold are so happy? 

The happiest nations, a virtual list of Nordic nations plus a few friends (Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada and Australia), may change positions but no country has joined or been knocked out of the top 10 in the past three years.

In the rankings, the U.S. comes right behind Luxembourg and ahead of the UK. We barely beat the United Arab Emirates, France and Mexico.

We significantly beat Russia at their 59th spot and we creamed Bhutan, a country that strives for happiness, but only ranks 97th. China was 86th, but as their economy surges, they have found that money does lead to improvement in happiness rankings over previous years.

No surprise that the poverty and violence filled nations in Africa (Burundi, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania) are at the bottom. 

Income levels, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and corruption levels are cited as the keys to a happy nation by compilers of the report.

In the polls, respondents around the globe are asked to imagine a ladder and out of 10 steps are you fist-pumping the sweet life at the top or scared, hungry and crying in the cellar?

The U.S. respondents for the past several years have been somewhere between the 6th and 7th step. In the latest rankings (2015-2017) we were on step 6.88 with Finland on step 7.63 at the top and Burundi only climbing up 2.9 steps.

Impediments to American happiness include obesity/health issues, the opioid crisis and widespread depression, according to Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of The Center for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, who supplied supplemental information.

In an interview, Sachs told the New York Times that even though incomes as a whole are rising, the results indicate the average American is under more stress than people in the happier nations.

One observation we’d add: Perhaps Americans don’t consider themselves happy because we are jaded by all that we do have. Look around, there is relative safety, the opportunity to succeed in many different fields and a very comfortable way of life for most. You can imagine if some poor fellow from Burundi were to be relocated here with any average job, they might tell pollsters they were on step 11 of the 10 step criteria. A Jasper resident from a poorer nation once told us in an interview he considers his convenience store “paradise.”

Our dissatisfaction may also come from the celebrity-worshiping cult in America. Even the most grounded middle-class life looks dull compared to the constant images of beautiful people doing exciting things filling television and social media.

As the aforementioned Ms. Sachs noted, America’s problems are not economic ones, they are social ones.

The sanctity (and manners) of a southern funeral procession

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer

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There are a million things I love about living in a rural southern town – boiled peanuts, cows for neighbors, waving hi to strangers, (did I mention boiled peanuts) – but not long ago I was reminded of a poignant tradition that speaks to the heart of being a small-town southerner. It’s one I hope we keep alive. 

The Progress office is on Main Street. I lucked up and got a window seat in the editorial room, which means when I’m stuck and need some inspiration I can look outside. On this particular day, it was hard to miss the funeral procession creeping south towards the traffic light – this one had an unusual number of law enforcement vehicles with their flashing reds and blues. I decided to walk outside.  

Not only had motorists pulled off on the side of the road to show their respects, people who had been walking on the street stood still and men took their caps off. There was a brief moment of silence. Georgia code states that funeral processions have the right of way at intersections, and that all other drivers should yield and let them pass, but that’s not what’s happening in scenarios like this one. What I witnessed then, and on many other occasions, is a southern tradition of showing courtesy and respect to the deceased and their families - and I love it. 

Interestingly, a NY Times article “Almost Moribund Itself, a Courtesy Pause for Death,” says the practice had roots in practicality, not manners, but evolved into the respectful display it is today.     

“Back when doctors still hurried to house calls,” the article states, “motorists approaching a funeral procession pulled over so the doctors could pass at will in the free lane of the two-lane roads. But even when house calls faded into history, people still did it, because it was right.”

The article goes on to quote Bill Ferris, Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, who aligns the tradition with a southern culture of sanctity for the dead. 

''Every Southerner has a healthy respect for death,'' said Ferris. ''You see that in Huck Finn when they are seeking his body in the river. All the superstitions in Twain's fiction are a part of the Southern mind. The procession of the dead, being carried to their burial spot, is a very sacred moment in every Southerner's life.''

Of course, this rich custom doesn’t translate as well in busier areas like metro Atlanta proper, and some people argue that it’s dangerous to pull over. A funeral law blogger asks the following: 

“Does this practice make sense in today’s society? Should we accord a funeral procession the same respect as an ambulance rushing an individual with a life-threatening emergency to the hospital? A 2012 article in the Washington Post noted that two people died, and 23 were injured in funeral processions that year. In 2011, three police officers were killed in separate funeral processions. Should we continue this tradition given the potential danger, expense, and disruption to traffic patterns?”

  The easy answer to these questions is common sense. Pulling over on Church Street or Highway 53 is a much different animal than pulling over on Barret Parkway or Highway 41, where life – and traffic – move much faster. While a funeral director interviewed for the article says this tradition, “born in a time of dirt roads and full-service gasoline stations, of Packards, Kaisers and Studebakers,” is becoming obsolete in these busier areas, “it survives…in the little towns, and in a few inner-city neighborhoods.”

Good for us, we live in a little town where we can keep this beautiful tradition of honoring the dead alive.

 

Kudos to commissioners for bold move

The Pickens County Board of Commissioners, and especially commissioner Becky Denney who led the charge, deserves a pat on the back for making a definitive move to clear up the public debacle that has been the “termination” of Gerry Nechvatal as Pickens County Economic Development Director. 

We put termination in quotation marks because it has been unclear as to whether or not his dismissal was legal - and what ensued after he was “dismissed” was an embarrassing public spectacle that went on for nearly two months. 

If you haven’t been following along we’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version: Nechvatal was dismissed by the Pickens County and Jasper Economic Development Council (EDC) in late January, but Nechvatal, members of the Pickens County Chamber of Commerce (Nechvatal was appointed by the same council to serve as Pickens County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director in 2016 and has served in both positions since) as well as members of the public say the EDC’s bylaws did not grant them that authority. It was argued that the EDC only had authority to make a recommendation for termination to the entities that fund the economic director position - the city of Jasper and Pickens County government. 

EDC representatives have maintained that they were within their rights to dismiss Nechvatal, who one EDC member said had a “pitiful” review and who Jasper Mayor John Weaver said was “impossible to fire.” Nechvatal maintained that he was not hired by the EDC, but that a citizens’ group hired him before EDC bylaws were created. There are also issues with the changes made to the EDC bylaws in 2016 which Nechvatal and others say invalidate the termination.  

And so it has gone, back and forth for well over a month with no resolution in sight. At the most recent Jasper City Council meeting council member Tony Fountain motioned to stop funding the position completely, which was not backed by the rest of council. 

We think the county cleared the issue up in the best and most common-sense way possible – Denney asked that the county continue funding the position, but requested it be put in escrow until a new person can be hired as economic development director. She said she felt the position was needed, but that it is full-time and should not be held by the same person employed as the Chamber’s executive director, also a full-time job. Several members of the EDC who initially supported the joint developer/chamber director role, said with the termination, they no longer had that view, believing the positions should be separate.

We agree wholeheartedly. We also agree with Nechvatal supporters who say his dismissal has been politicized and handled distastefully.   

Like Denney and other commissioners, we hope that by separating those two roles, an economic development director will be found to move the county forward in a way residents and leaders want to see.