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Growth, financial concern are valuable
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I write in response to an editorial by Sean Register recently published in this paper. Register is an enthusiastic supporter of development efforts in Bryan County. He and the other members of the Development Authority of Bryan County have much to be proud of. Many of us in Effingham have watched the DABC’s development of Interstate Centre with a tad of friendly envy.
I was not surprised to read of Register’s disappointment that Bryan lost a $500 million, 1,700-job industrial prospect at Belfast Commerce Centre to another location in Sumter, S.C.
But Register’s disappointment turns to sour grapes when he blames Richmond Hill council members Jimmy Hires and Marilyn Hodges, along with City Manager Mike Melton, because they have yet to commit Richmond Hill’s taxpayers to borrow $5 million for water and sewer to the site.
He said they are disingenuous and “less than cooperative and less than motivated.”  They are “against this project” and “up for re-election this year,” Register huffs as he claims that Belfast (owned by TerraPointe, a subsidiary of Rayonier) is an “equal or better site” than the Sumter site.
I disagree.
That lost prospect is Continental Tire, a multi-billion dollar German company whose U.S. tire division is already located in South Carolina, about an hour’s drive from the Sumter site. This 320-acre site lies with frontage on U.S. 521, a five-lane highway 11 miles west of its intersection with I-95. South Carolina officials pledged $31 million and obtained a $4 million federal Community Development Block Grant to close the deal.
Further, although Belfast will eventually need water and sewer, its primary drawback today is transportation. As Georgia Trend reported in March 2009, Belfast’s “problem is that there’s no exit off the interstate to the proposed site. … Getting the funds for such construction is likely to be a tall order.”
Indeed. According to the state DOT, improvements to Belfast Road for heavy truck traffic and an intersection at I-95 could cost local and state taxpayers more than $35 million.
In short, the competitive viability of Belfast Commerce Centre is not yet ripe.
Developers always tout arguments for taxpayer funding of infrastructure costs with the need for growth, expansion of the tax base, jobs, increased revenue and relieving the tax burden. These are good arguments, but they’re not written in stone.
Elected officials need conservative common sense and caution to balance these arguments against the potential waste of taxpayers’ money.
I wish Effingham had found the likes Hires, Hodges and Melton on our county commission and staff a few years ago. It swallowed those same arguments that “all the growth” coming to Effingham required a multi-million dollar water and sewer system.
In all the cheery excitement, a chorus of developers rallied around the commission’s tune:  “It won’t cost the taxpayers a dime,” while not one county commissioner, not one, had the integrity of a Hires, Hodges or Melton, to say, “Wait a minute, folks.” 
Today this system has only a handful of customers, it’s $35 million in debt, and the county has “borrowed” another $10 million from our general fund to subsidize annual losses.
Written guaranties issued by developers were challenged in court by the same developers who signed them back in our yahoo days. Georgia’s Supreme Court recently voided those guaranties as unenforceable.
Effingham taxpayers now pay almost two mils per year for this welfare for developers. It smells like the Solyndra-style crony capitalism and corporate welfare wafting out of Washington these days. 
Register closes his thoughts with a divisive appeal. He says Belfast is on hold “due to the unwillingness of some elected and hired officials to embrace jobs and increased revenue coming to Richmond Hill,” and that Rayonier is “probably waiting for the Nov. 8 elections …”
Register’s appeal to punish caution and common sense at the ballot box trivializes the very development efforts he champions.
These efforts require the essence of good government: patience, planning, deliberation and friendly persuasion, not naked political power schemes to control the Richmond Hill City Council.
I don’t live in Richmond Hill (neither does Register), and I won’t tell its voters who to vote for. I don’t even know the candidates, and economic development is only one of many issues voters must consider Tuesday.
I just pray they don’t vote against competent public officials who have a conservative appreciation for the taxpayers’ money.
Both are valuable commodities.

Arden is a former banker in Guyton.
Editor’s note: City Manager Mike Melton is a staff member and has no vote on the Richmond Hill City Council.

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