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Staff Editorials

Fighting the plastic shopping bag menace

The thing about plastic shopping bags is they are so darn good at their intended purpose: A super-efficient way to get your goods home from Walmart or the farmers market.

What is convenient for a moment, however, is a problem for centuries: How to get rid of the mounds of plastic bags?

According to figures found widely online: 

• In the U.S. alone, 100 billion of the bags are used each year.

• The average lifespan of each bag is 20 minutes -- one commute.

• 60-100 million barrels of oil are used each year to produce the world’s supply of bags.

• The bags are projected to take 400 to 1,000 years to decompose. There is no exact science on this. When you are talking 10 centuries, the bags could outlast the species that created them – a bunch of bags and Styrofoam cups floating in the cosmos after the earth is gone.

Industry groups that produce the bags are quick to point out that they are easily recyclable. Most stores have convenient drop-off bins and will take old bags from competing stores.

The proponents of the bags also note that many bags have a second life as  trash can liners or other uses. Apparently 90 percent of all consumers in an industry-funded survey say they re-use at least some of the bags.

The problem, according to the critics, stems directly from what makes them so economical, they are generally designed for a single use – the handles rip, they tear easily. They are great at getting one load of groceries home, but would you load them down a second or third time?

Conscientious shoppers take care to get the bags back to the recycling bin, but if the plastic bags get loose outside, they are light enough to take flight and wind up where the breeze takes them, often into storm drains in cities and very often into oceans and frequently into the stomachs of large sea creatures.

In 2014, plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item collected during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup.

While we don’t have a coastline here, think how often you see one of those bags tangled up in bushes at the parks, blowing down roadsides or half-buried at some open site.

Bringing the bag-hordes under control is a matter of all consumers accepting less convenience in their lifestyle -- something not very common.

Environmentalists who recognize the problem with the plastic acknowledge there is no easy substitute. Bags made of any other products (wood-pulp paper, cotton or fibers) come with a whole different set of issues due to the volume of bags needed to meet the world’s needs. 

One person joked online that the liberals are already well-positioned to make a change in bag-behavior as they can use all those tote-bags given by public television stations during fund-drives.

Many cities and some countries are adding taxes to the bags or requiring stores to charge for them, which has produced a corresponding amount of whining, but also a substantial drop in the usage.

Britain introduced a small charge at stores in 2015, leading to a plunge of more than 80 percent in the use of plastic bags, according to an article in the Guardian. Think about it this way, if you are buying a drink and candy bar would you really pay another dime for a bag to carry them to the car?

New York City, Los Angeles and at least 100 other smaller U.S. municipalities have some kind of punitive tax or rule in place to discourage single-user plastic bags.

Poorer countries have taken a lead in the fight to eliminate plastic bag litter by banning them. Both Rwanda and Kenya have draconian laws prohibiting the bags entirely – partly because the countries lack efficient garbage services and people there can literally see the scope of the waste as it buries vacant land.

Some combination of education and additional costs would prod consumers to realize you don’t need to bag every single item you purchase. Rather than imposing harsh rules or bans, if consumers recognized the impact of taking the bags and then throwing them in the trash immediately when they get home, maybe we can all cut back voluntarily.

Keep in mind those plastic goblins must go somewhere and wherever they wind up, they are there to stay forever.

 

10 Things you need to know about this county and senior taxes

All of the points below are very basic, but they are essential to an educated discussion regarding the key issues of the day in this county. While they may seem obvious to longtime followers of county/school news, recent questions and comments show that a little refresher is needed.

1. The county and school system operate completely separately. The county commissioners have no power whatsoever to tell the school board how to operate or budget or spend. Both tax bills show up on the same paper and are handled by the county tax commissioner but each body sets its own tax rate.

 

2. The school superintendent is hired by the elected school board. The superintendent post was formerly an elected office but, by state law, has been a hired administrative position for well over a decade.

 

3. Pickens County does have a school tax exemption. In Pickens County there is a full exemption of school taxes for people over 62 years old who make less than $25,000 a year. About 550 property owners take advantage of it.

 

4. School taxes make up the largest portion of your total tax bill. School taxes have decreased the past two years by small amounts. The student population has been flat in recent years, not growing much over the past five years. This year the school system has budgeted to collect $21.4 million in local property taxes as part of their $45 million total budget. The county will collect $10.9 million in local property tax as part of their total $25.5 million budget.

 

5. Pickens schools rank fairly high statewide, usually beating other north Georgia counties but not posting scores as high as the metro area schools.

 

6. Renters do not receive property tax bills but their landlords do and you can be sure that rental properties are taxed, just like residential. An argument put forward a few times that parents living in rental housing are getting a free ride for their children’s education is ludicrous.

 

7. There is no avoiding the property tax bill. Even if a property goes into foreclosure or an owner abandons it, the bank or next owner will find past-due tax bills waiting on them. Sooner or later the bill will be paid by someone.

 

8. The tax base is the total value of all taxable property in the county. It also includes equipment, some inventory, and personal items like boats. But the vast majority comes from residential housing. The total tax digest value last year was $1.388 billion. When this rises, the county and schools receive more revenue with the same tax (millage) rate. So some years they cut the tax rate but still get more revenue.

 

9. Gated communities pull big weight in the digest. In Pickens County, the gated communities of Bent Tree (9 percent) and Big Canoe (12-13 percent) make up more than 20 percent of the tax base. The city of Jasper, including all the commercial properties, accounts for 11-12 percent of the tax base.

 

10. The process of how to increase/change the current exemption is convoluted. At this stage the Pickens GOP will put a straw poll on their May primary ballot. The local democrats chose to not include a straw poll. The results of this poll are not binding. They  give the county, school and state officials a starting point in developing a new exemption that can be put to a county-wide vote later.

Appreciating Pickens through others’ eyes

For the last several years our editor has volunteered to lead one of the Marble Festival quarry tours. These are easily the highlight of the festival, especially for  out-of-towners. Over the past three decades, the Chamber has carried hundreds of passengers around the county, traversing our scenic roads and stopping at the Marble Museum in Nelson and at the working marble operations of Blue Ridge Marble & Granite, Polycor, Imerys and Huber.

All the marble companies do fantastic jobs with friendly and knowledgeable real life marble miners on hand to answer the dozens of questions that range from geologic (how deep does the marble vein run?) to the routine (how does the water get in the quarries?)

Our editor this year had a group from Alpharetta who got lost on the way here, missed their original tour, had already spent way too long on a bus, and weren’t in the best of moods.

But by the time they saw all the vintage photos at the Nelson Marble Museum and had a marble carver discuss making VA headstones, carving flowers, and other finer points of his work, the morning snafus were long-forgotten. In fact, they were engrossed, wishing their tour wasn’t being cut short by a scheduled return to the metro area.

Another group up from Savannah who didn’t take the tour asked why the festival is called the Marble Festival? When they found out Pickens County is the Marble Capital of the World, and that our marble was used to make the Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery headstones they were impressed, interested, and wanted to know more. 

Growing up around the marble here, with large blocks of it visible on roadsides, you can come to take it for granted. Tate Elementary, the Tate House, the county courthouse and the old convict camp on Camp Road are all made of marble, but because we drive by them all the time we may not appreciate how special they are. Out of towners, however, are amazed. 

When you take into account those reactions from people on quarry tours and tourists’ reactions to our marble buildings, then see people at the festival leaving with the largest “scrap” pieces of white stone they can carry, you realize our heritage is not something to take lightly.

Unfortunately, as explained to the tour group, barring Tate Day (Saturday, Nov. 4th) and the Marble Festival, the quarries and mines are working industries and for obvious reasons the public is not allowed to wander in and ask questions. The Nelson Marble Museum is open but won’t have guides and may not have anyone on hand depending on what business is underway in city hall.

As we have editorialized before, particularly regarding the mostly unused Tate Depot, it’s a tough budgetary call to operate historic attractions. Would there really be enough visitors to cover salaries and management? Our editor will attest that the group he guided around the county wanted to come back and spend more time, but you have to reach others - no small feat, but a worthwhile goal.

Also not to be overlooked are comments about our quaint back roads. 

The difference from the metro-area was easy to see by the expression of the Alpharetta bus driver who was skeptical when told he could leave his bus sitting in a Nelson street for a few minutes.

The rural lifestyle and views from Jasper are also an asset we need to foster. It is becoming more-and-more unusual to have a place you can drive around without constant congestion and with nice scenery.

For both the monuments of stone and solitude on back roads, we should all be appreciative of Pickens County.

Needed at area groups: fresh blood, warm bodies

Several weeks ago the leader of the Sassafras Literary Society came to us to discuss their dwindling membership. The group, which promotes creative writing among adults and youth, was suffering from the deaths of some key members and poor health of others.

The group’s writing contest for youth has been a mainstay of young scribes for three decades but this year  it wasn’t clear how they would find enough readers to judge the piles of entries from middle and high school writers.

We ran a couple of stories on it and enough warm bodies showed up to their next meeting to avert the crisis – for this year.

As we were preparing our guide for this year’s Marble Festival, it became apparent that tour times/info for the Old Jail was going to be sparse. The Marble Valley Historical Society, who operate the jail, was short on guides and volunteers – again due to a combination of deaths of local historians and poor health of other members.

Due to the scarcity of volunteers able to get around the historic building, tours were self-guided with the jail still seeing a steady stream of visitors the day it was open. But as we reported last week, our prime historic attraction on Main Street won’t be open unless someone schedules a private tour.

A similar fate has fallen on the Jasper Lions Club, (where one of our staff is a member), whose membership has also fallen over the last few years. Similar to the Marble Valley Historical Society, the remaining active members are getting older and have less energy to perform volunteer work that’s often labor intensive, like buying and sorting thousands of toys for the Fil-A-Stocking program. 

A few years ago the decades-old  Sharptop Arts Association had to shutter its doors in large part because the non-profit couldn’t recruit anyone into leadership roles. 

An unfortunate trend seems to be developing where the hard-working volunteers that have provided this community with historical societies, literary contests, and other service projects are aging-out. They are not being replaced by a steady flow of new members.

Possibly, young and middle-aged people (and here we mean anyone under 60) are no longer as interested in these particular groups and their missions. That’s a shame. From  promoting the arts to organizing Toy Runs, these groups have done a lot of good.

Or possibly, as is often reported, younger families are stretched in too many directions and the social expectation that solid middle class people join some type of Lions, Optimists, Jaycees, a lodge or Sportsmen’s Club is falling by the wayside. Certainly the custom of this era is moving away from genuine face-to-face socializing and more toward glaring at a cell phone.

We would ask our readers to look at some of the groups out there and see if any interest you. They all welcome visitors where you can find out more about their missions. Some, like the historical society, don’t have regular meetings but could surely spring back into life if the interest was there.

We would also suggest if you’ve got an interest that is not currently represented by a club out there, start one. We’ll publicize it for free in the Progress and see if there are others around who share your interest, guaranteed you’ll find joining/starting a small group infinitely more rewarding that ranting online.

Fall is the perfect time to explore area & festivals

Last Friday marked the beginning of autumn for us in the northern hemisphere and while temps are still warm we are looking forward to cool mornings followed by afternoons filled with just warm-enough sunshine. 

In the coming months, the days will become shorter and we’ll be seeing less and less sunlight, but before we wind up stuck inside on cold winter days we should take this time, some would describe as “perfect weather,” and get outside. 

From farmers markets and apple houses, to pumpkin patches and fall festivals, our community and its surrounding locales have a plethora of activities for those looking to get outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. 

Next weekend (Oct. 7-8) our Chamber of Commerce will host the annual Marble Festival. Lots of changes are on tap this year - an expanded kids’ area, a free downtown concert, and a renewed focus on arts and crafts. A mountain arts and crafts demonstration area inside the gates in Lee Newton Park will be a new treat this year and there will be a Main Street Experience during the festival hosted by the Jasper Merchants. 

Only a couple of weekends later, the town of Talking Rock’s annual Heritage Days festival brings two days of old-fashioned fun resplendent with antiques and crafts. The picturesque town puts on a great event (this year on October 21-22). It has seen attendance grow every year as the people keep coming back to see what’s new in Talking Rock. 

And on November 4th, Tate Day aims to keep the history of the town alive with an old-fashioned parade, a tour of the Tate marble school, a cake baking contest, and plenty of musical entertainment along with arts and crafts. 

Festival food is always a treat (yes, we are thinking of funnel cakes already.) We can’t think of a better way to spend a cool north Georgia weekend than visiting the local festivals, eating your fill and visiting with neighbors.

Autumn in the towns north of us brings fresh apples waiting to be picked. And when you get home from a morning plunking around an apple orchard you can spend some more family-together time poking around in the kitchen baking up delicacies with your recently picked bounty. If you wind up cooking too much, feel free to drop extras off at our office at 94 North Main Street.

Boasting the color of autumn itself, patches of orange pumpkins, too, call to us from our own area farms. Ready for picking, baking, and carving into jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, pumpkin pickin’ is close at hand and yet another excuse to get out and enjoy the cooler days of fall. The allure of homemade pumpkin pie or pumpkin bread is another reason to get yourself to a pumpkin farm.

Also be on the lookout for haunted attractions throughout the area.

Of course not everything this fall requires a walk around festivals or farms. Although we hate to advocate polluting the environment with long drives, a tour around some of the county’s more mountainous areas would be a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The splendor of seeing the native maples, sourwoods, sassafras, and sweetgums putting on their annual color show is something to be admired.  

Head up Burnt Mountain Road and you’ll find a hiking trail just before the first look-off. A nice hike in the woods on a 70-degree day sure sounds good to us. 

So while the weather is still so nice let’s celebrate the fall “harvests” and appreciate the bounty they offer.