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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Let’s Build Ladders

Let’s Build Ladders At a recent professional development conference, the keynote speaker made a comment that really got my attention. He said, “instead of always focusing on and talking about building safety nets in our country, let’s build more ladders.” Is that not what the American Dream is all about? Have we not digressed from a nation that offered complete freedom in pursuing all that a citizen’s human imagination could dream to a nation where millions languish and survive on the minimums its governments dole out? Education has long been a societal ladder offering anyone who worked hard and studied hard, a skill set to pursue vocational and occupational success. The American Public Education system has been called the great equalizer meaning that if one worked hard and earned the educational credentials that are available, they could achieve success far above whatever socioeconomic background one came from. Recently, community leaders from the Dalton-Whitfield community came together and pledged their support for a unified focus on literacy and assisting all our school children in being on OR ABOVE grade level by the end of the third grade. We encouraged the leadership of our school systems to be innovative in making that success possible. Because all of our children enter pre-kindergarten at different levels of ability as it relates to reading, a focus on literacy requires resources beyond the normal school budget. And in a time when education funding is continuously cut by the state of Georgia (and most state governments), local budgets struggle to maintain existing programs much less offer new and expensive ones. “For the first time in 16 years, local governments paid a higher share of the cost of public education than state governments. In 2010, Georgia’s public schools received about 38 percent of their funding from the state, with local government paying about 48 percent,” as reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The Executive Board of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce enthusiastically applauds our community’s leaders (especially those of our school systems) for taking a risk in offering our children the help they need at the time they need it. The old model of thinking requires resources be spent on remediation and trying to get students who are failing caught up. But doesn’t it make sense to give our children the resources and assistance that can provide them success throughout their education. It has been overly stated but the saying goes that “we learn to read up through the third grade and read to learn after that.” We applaud the bold action by our school systems to invest in reading and providing all children regardless of background the opportunity to succeed in school. Over time this increased investment in education on the front-end has the potential to drastically reduce resources spent for remediation and drastically increase our graduation rate. Providing innovative educational opportunities is not cheap. The Readers to Leaders initiative will require more teachers in grades pre-k through 3 to provide the one-on-one and small group focus on reading and comprehension. The need for these resources and as stated earlier to provide the funding that the state has cut, our school systems need a stable and balanced revenue base. The most stable and fair revenue base is a combination of reasonable property tax rates and the regular utilization of a Special Local Option Sales Tax for education. The Executive Board of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce endorses the passage of the ESPLOST Referendum on the July 31st ballot. The ESPLOST is a needed component of revenue that can allow our school systems to pay off their construction debt, make needed investments in technology for our schools / students, and reduce pressure on their operating budgets freeing up resources for Literacy Initiatives, etc. As the voice of business and the organization that looks out for the best interests of the business community, we traditionally would oppose increased taxes. But when you compare our community to our neighbors and the state average, our tax rates are and have been significantly lower than most communities in Georgia. Given that we also advocate for a skilled workforce, we feel the combination of both revenue streams will allow for the best investment in our children while maintaining our competitive position versus other communities. All of us need to continue challenging our school leaders to be as innovative as possible in driving educational attainment. And as they offer creative ways to increase our educational success, we must do our part to provide the necessary resources to fund those initiatives. As a community, let’s be about building ladders to success and not more and larger safety nets…

Democracy Blooms

Democracy Blooms I know it is hard to believe but Democracy is once again in bloom. Political signs advertising the candidates we will be voting for and even the issues we will consider have sprung from the ground like spring flowers. I would say that Democracy is in full bloom, but as a recent story in the Daily Citizen explained, many races were decided even before the first vote was cast due to lack of challengers. But even a less than perfect Democracy is better than the alternative. We as Americans have been so richly blessed with freedom; unfortunately, though, many take our blessings for granted. Given that so many have given the ultimate sacrifice that gave us the freedom to be governed in a free society, it is incumbent upon all of us to continue encouraging all to participate in the democratic process. What is at stake? Why should we care? It is tragic to me that more than a few cannot answer these serious questions. Consider just the last 12 years when our country has been led by both parties. Were we tremendously better off during the years under President Bush’s leadership? Has President Obama improved our nation or made it worse? The extremists who live on the left and right fringe of the political spectrum will vehemently argue that the lives of most Americans were better off when their President was in office or their party controlled Congress. What do you think? Have you studied the issues? Do you listen to and read divergent opinions trying to understand the different dimensions of the serious issues facing our country? I can candidly confess that for many of my years that I did not look at issues from all sides. I tended to believe the party and /or the leaders of the party that I most closely aligned with. Not anymore … I now work hard to understand issues from many angles. I try to listen to people that I know I would disagree with on many issues. And it is my humble opinion that until more of us does the same; we will continue to get what we are currently getting. It doesn’t take years of research or a multitude of degrees to realize that we as a country, and as a people, have real serious issues facing us. Entitlement programs that are necessary and vital to so many but as currently designed are unsustainable. We have an education system that fails more and more children year after year. And for the first time in decades, it is predicted that our younger generations will not enjoy a standard of living that equals that of their parents. All the courses in history and political science that I took in college certainly taught me that this isn’t the first time in history that we have been divided politically. Throughout our rocky existence, there have been times worse than today’s but thankfully better times as well. But what worries me about the times we live in today is not the bickering but the lacking of capacity for true debate. We seem to be electing not our best and brightest, but in many cases the better of two so-so candidates. And the service above self mantra that truly makes the kind of servant leader so desperately needed is becoming harder and harder to find. At the federal level, I would almost argue that any incumbent who has been in office longer than 4 years should be changed. When the two parties and two of the three branches of government have been so dysfunctional in managing our fiscal affairs as the last six congresses have - it is time for systemic change. And at the state level, are we any better? Since the current majority party took control, we are less educated, have degrading infrastructure that needs desperate attention, and continue to lag most states in growing per capita income of our citizens. When Indiana and New Jersey seemed to be making stronger strides in becoming innovative in providing local government that is responsive, efficient, and effective – we could learn a thing or two. America is an amazing place! A destination billions dream of visiting and would give their all to live here. But we as Americans – everyday citizens – are checking out of the very process that makes us so special. Congratulations and thank you to all who have signed your name on the dotted line and offered yourselves up for service. We the citizens of Whitfield County, Georgia, and the United States salute you. It is now our responsibility to do our part in learning about you and the issues you strive to improve. Between now and the first Tuesday in November, we need to exercise true citizenship as we become educated about the candidates and the issues, and cast our votes accordingly. Let us not dishonor the sacrifices given in fighting for government from the people, by the people, and for the people…

Preventing Tomorrow’s Problems Today Through Education

Preventing Tomorrow’s Problems Today Through Education A few years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Thomas Meredith, chancellor of the University of Georgia System, speak on the importance of education. He stated, “Ask me any question, and the answer is education, education, education.” Although I fully understood what he meant at the time, I am not sure if he knew how truly profound his statement was. Some of our political leaders and most of the Occupy Movement participants believe we need greater laws and higher taxes on some to level the playing field. And that seems an easy solution. But the problem with that approach is it just will not work. When government provides its citizens the means to live by, most of those recipients will not use that assistance to better themselves and position themselves for greater opportunities. They will more often than not simply become more and more dependent of the government to continue providing for them. Case in point, during our nation’s very difficult and extreme recession, the federal government in cooperation with state governments provided almost two years worth of unemployment assistance. Almost two year’s worth of income with no requirement that the recipients do anything. Income over a period of time that an associate’s degree could have been earned if pursued. Furthermore, many states provide low cost and in some cases no cost educational and job-training opportunities. One would naturally assume that many if not most of those displaced by their jobs being eliminated would have sought out retraining opportunities to better equip themselves for gaining employment when the economy improved. A few have returned to school to better themselves but just a few. And even more perplexing, we as a nation have invested trillions in education infrastructure that is producing a dismal return on investment at best. Although our children enter pre-k or kindergarten blessed with God-given intellect and ability, our one hundred year old model of education loses a tremendous number of them along the way who will not graduate or even if they do will not be prepared for post-secondary learning. We have invested trillions more in a higher education system that only graduates less than 20% of those that enter college (technical or bachelors programs). And our career guidance and placement capacity is so minimal; the vast majority that is capable and has the initiative to seek the education needed, waste time and money not knowing what their interests and demonstrated ability will translate into a career field they can be successful in. Education – even as inadequate as our current system is – is still America’s greatest hope for creating wealth and opportunity for its citizens. With Baby-Boomers poised to leave the workforce by the millions, our young people given the proper education and training will have limitless opportunities. But only if they stay in school, work hard, and go on to college and gain the necessary work skills needed by the world marketplace. Just as Sen. Bethel recently remarked that you cannot legislate the heart as he spoke on the tragedy of child abuse. I would also argue that you cannot level the playing field through government action. The system should have adequate checks and balances to prevent the dishonest from manipulating the system, but open enough that hard work and ability can enable success by future generations just as it has historically. America remains poised for greatness and education, education, education remains the ticket to opportunity …

Honoring the Institution of Prayer

Honoring the Institution of Prayer If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14). This week our nation set aside May 3rd as the National Day of Prayer. I was blessed to attend two wonderful events as part of our community’s celebration of this significant day. The first was at Grove Level Baptist Church and led by Pastor Charlie Bridges and many of the wonderful members of the Grove Level Baptist Congregation. Each year Grove Level has a special prayer time with most of the leadership of our community. Attendees typically include: City and County officials, State Legislators, Superior Court Judges, Magistrate and Probate Court Judges, Officials of our Law Enforcement and Fire Departments, etc. I have been able to attend dating back to my days as a member of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners. I am always honored to be invited and truly blessed from the experience of taking time to come together as leaders of our community and praying. The second event was the National Day of Prayer Celebration on the lawn of our courthouse. Having the opportunity to come together with leaders from our community and our friends and neighbors was indeed a blessing. I personally want to thank the organizing committee led by Dr. Dale Kidd. What a powerful testimony of our great community and our great nation that we can freely assemble, call on the amazing and loving God of the universe, and pray. As the scripture says, if we will humble ourselves and pray, God will hear us and answer our prayers. America is still a bastion of strength and a light on a hill. As someone once said, “a nation can be measured by which way people move when the gates are let down.” People all over the world still hope for an opportunity to come to America and experience all that our great and free nation can offer. Dr. Richard Lee wrote in the introduction of a book, In God We Still Trust, “While other nations have built their governments upon the shaky foundations of communism, socialism, and countless other anti-God philosophies, only to see those foundations crumble, America stands without equal as a beacon of hope and freedom in a hurting world.” Governments, being comprised of humans, are by their very nature imperfect. But a people who humble themselves, recognize and pledge their love and devotion to a perfect and loving God, can lead a strong nation. Although my belief in God sustains and blesses me, I have not written this column trying to offend those who do not know God or who choose not to believe. But I also make no apologies for sharing my faith and offering that it is my faith alone that enables me to make sense of and to live abundantly in a broken world. My Prayer for our community… Father, I humbly bow and pray and ask that you hear my prayer… You are truly magnificent, holy, loving, gracious, omnipotent, giving, and merciful… I thank you for the over-whelming blessings bestowed upon our nation, our state, our community, and my family. You are truly gracious in providing our daily bread… I lift up the leaders of our governments for our country, our state, and our community. Thank you for good and Godly servants who answer the call to serve. Lead them I pray. Equip them with a heart for those they represent, and the wisdom to exercise fair and impartial judgment. Protect them from the temptations that follow power and authority. I lift up the ministers and lay leaders of our churches. Our churches have so much capacity for good. But that capacity is useless without action. Lead our churches to seek out unfairness, injustice, and hurt within our nation and our community – and lead us to do something about it. I lift up our Free Enterprise System and the corporations, companies, and small businesses that operate fairly and honorably within it. Our free market economy can and does provide our ability to work, invest, save, and provide for our families. I pray that you will bless those that operate honorably and treat their employees and customers fairly. And I pray that you will reckon with those that do not. Father God – you are truly holy and good! Make us a prayerful nation. In your holy name I pray … Amen

Monday, February 20, 2012

Monkey in the Middle

Monkey in the Middle is a children’s game where two or more players try to keep the player in between them from getting the ball. They can throw the ball over or around the player in the middle. It is basically the opposite of Dodge ball. In today’s political climate, I would argue Monkey in the Middle is being played with the citizens of the United States.

Let me explain … the extreme left and the extreme right are keeping the success that America offers from the majority of Americans whose political philosophy is more moderate or centrist. It is my opinion that the diehard liberals and the diehard conservatives comprise less than 50% of the voting electorate. Those who would classify themselves as in the center, or center left, or center right make-up the majority.

But the extremists on both ends of the political spectrum are the vocal minority while the moderates in the center are the silent minority - hence the monkey in the middle reference. America is still the greatest nation on earth. The promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness still inspires millions to come to our nation – legally and illegally. Bill Bennett recently said at the Georgia Chamber’s Annual Banquet that the measure of a nation is measured by what happens when the gates are opened. Given the slightest chance people still flow into the United States despite our problems.

The extreme right and the extreme left currently have our nation in gridlock like never before. Even at a time when so much needs fixing, nothing is getting done. The extreme right under President Bush pushed American policy so far to the right (except on spending), the election of President Obama or someone like him was inevitable. And given conventional political wisdom (oxymoron), President Obama will likely be re-elected. Then in 2016, the middle majority will be forced to swing again to the right to course correct the dangerous policies enacted under the Obama administrations.

And we wonder why real problems in America go unsolved… America needs statesmen and stateswomen. In most other perilous times in our history, we had leaders who could bring us together. America rallied many times against imperial nations who sought to rule the world. We routinely come to the aid of American communities who have suffered a natural disaster and nations around the globe facing the same. But the internal problems that are plaguing our nation continue untouched.

America’s safety net has served millions and continues to do so today. But the bureaucratic largesse of many of our entitlement programs threatens their longevity. If costs are not reigned in for Medicare and Social Security, these programs will cease to exist. While corporate America has been forced to redefine benefits in order to compete in a global economy, our government entities at all levels refuse to address changes that are desperately needed.
Today’s America would not elect a Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush – even Hillary Clinton was considered moderate compared to President Obama. Consider the current Republican Presidential nomination process... Mitt Romney who clearly has tremendous leadership skills and accomplishments struggles because the primary process gives greater voice to the extreme in the Republican Party vs the moderately conservative.

I am not endorsing Mr. Romney. I am only saying that his qualifications for office are being subordinated to his less than extreme right philosophical positions. Conversely Senator Obama was elected in spite of his glaring lack of experience for serving in the most powerful leadership position in the world. And given his more often than not leave it to Congress approach to governing; we desperately lack the needed statesmanship a strong leader can bring to a divided nation along partisan lines.

So what do we do about it? As citizens, we must work hard at educating ourselves on the issues. And then we must hold our elected officials accountable to do what is right and just for our nation – not what is politically expedient. We must also look at issues from a non-partisan paradigm. For instance, I am fundamentally opposed to the government providing entitlements on the premise they are the rights of its citizens vs privileges. But I am equally opposed to universally not helping those who desperately need it. We must help people while also leading them to provide for themselves.

Those who profess to be moderates or centrists must also be more active and involved in the process. Whether it be in campaign volunteering or simply voicing the concerns over issues that cannot be solved by the left or the right and demanding a compromise or as Dr. Stephen Covey would say – seeking the third alternative or win –win.

Social Security for instance will not be protected for future retirees by the views of the left or the right. The left simply wants to raise taxes on everybody to provide more revenue. The right simply wants to reduce benefits. The third alternative or win-win is to protect benefits of all over the age of 55 or 60 while adjusting the forecasted benefits of those younger than that. But current retirees who are above a certain income level could also receive fewer benefits. Unfortunately the gridlock between the extremes will prevent any reform threatening Social Security as we know it.

Some are sure we will become the next Greece because of the course we are on. I am not convinced that is our future, but I am sure we will continue to fall behind other nations if we stay the course. It is time for real problem-solving and real leadership at all levels of government. And the majority of citizens who philosophically live in the middle are the greatest hope we have in finding common ground.

Celebrating our Strengths

Over the last few days, there have been stories in our local newspaper that have been both positive and negative that need further discussion. Unfortunately, the negative story that got my attention was on the front page with a big negative headline and was not entirely true. The other story was something very positive for our community but it had a basic, run of the mill headline and a small story on page 3 or 4.

In defense of our newspaper, it is just like most news mediums these days; focus on the negative because that is what sells. But it is amazing to me that a local newspaper would not want to sell the community it calls home a little more often by touting the good and not sensationalizing the not so good.

So that is my hope in this column. There is plenty of negative in this world. But all too often there is positive news, things to be proud of, and things we should celebrate – but our humanness leads us to the dark side. I am not advocating that we should blindly overlook the areas we need to improve in, but I am saying there is plenty to celebrate in our community.

The three areas I will briefly outline are strengths for our community: our community’s access to excellent healthcare, the safety of our community, and our access to high quality education in our community. These three community attributes provide us a competitive advantage in our economic development efforts and benefit each and every one of us that called Greater Dalton home.

Imagine my surprise last week when the above-the-fold front page headline proclaimed crime was a serious issue for our community. Crime is always a concern and all of us wish we had zero crime in our community. But to look at ten years worth of data and state that due to an 8% increase in certain crime statistics that we have a crime wave occurring is misleading. In fact, the crime statistics presented clearly illustrate that incidents of crime in 2011 were less than half of what they were back in 2002 and 2003.

The reporter went on to infer that one of the causes of the “spike” was the economy. Interestingly our incidents of crime were the worst back in 2002-2003 when our local economy was booming. During the last three years when we have faced extreme economic headwinds, the numbers show we have a very safe community.

Not being a sociologist, I do not know why our crime rate is what it is. I cannot speak to the social issues that produce the types and numbers of criminal behavior that does occur. But I can look at the data and discern that we are blessed to live in a very safe community. And that our community is safe because of the dedicated public safety and judicial professionals in our community. From our Sheriff’s office, to our city police departments, our correctional officers, our District Attorneys, and our judges - we are blessed by their efforts.

Recently I had the opportunity to hear an update from our hospital and physicians about a program they have been working on for months. The Clinical Integration program is primarily a voluntary effort on behalf of Hamilton Medical System and most of our local physicians to measure the effectiveness in improving the outcomes of medical care. In other words, every participating physician has the data from treating their patients downloaded into a database where over time the medical community can benchmark best practices for treating different medical conditions. Quality healthcare and better treatment will be an outcome of this innovative approach to medicine.

During this same week, our newspaper ran a story acknowledging Hamilton Medical Center’s recognition as being in the top 5% of all hospitals in the nation for quality care. In our region only Hamilton Medical Center and Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga received this prestigious designation. Again as a community and economic development professional, I am grateful that we have such wonderful healthcare resources in our community. I applaud all of our dedicated healthcare professionals who worked so diligently to take of us.

And finally, I have been on the record as one who supports and desires reforming the American Education system. I strongly believe that for America to compete globally, we have to continuously seek to make significant improvements in how we educate our children and future workforce.

But working for continuous improvement and desiring education transformation does not mean that our local school assets are less than adequate. Quite the opposite is true. If you were to spend any amount of time in our schools, both k-12 schools and our higher education institutions, you would quickly see how blessed we are. Looking beyond the next standardized test score, one can find real innovative approaches in our schools striving to provide our students with the educational achievement they need.

Are we where we want to be or need to be? No, but we have dedicated teachers, administrators, and school board members who are constantly looking for ways to improve. They care about our children and our communities. And the business community is committed to working as a partner in making our educational assets the best possible.

There is and always will be areas we need to be improving in. But as I visit communities all around us, we are better than average in at least the areas of healthcare, crime and safety, and education. All of us who have the responsibility of community development appreciate the outstanding efforts of our healthcare, public safety and judicial, and education professionals who make Greater Dalton great!

1000 Days and Counting

Best I can remember the first “State of the Union” I ever watched was President Reagan’s in 1981. Although I was only in High School, I was a political geek even back then. Some of you may remember the TV sitcom, “Family Ties” starring Michael J. Fox as the lead character, Alex P. Keaton. Alex was a high school aged kid who over the time of the show started college. Even in High School, Alex wore ties and sport coats to school and carried a brief case. And of course he was a budding capitalist and conservative in his political persuasion. Sounds like me in the early eighties.

Fast forward thirty years and I am still watching Presidential State of the Union speeches even the ones given by those who I differ with ideologically. And regardless of a President’s ideology, I am always in awe of the institution and history that “the state of the union” presents. I get caught up in the pageantry, poetry, and hope that most of the 30+ speeches I have seen over my lifetime offer.
The next day, however, reality sets in. Regardless of whether I agree with the majority of the speech or disagree with the speech, I am more and more burdened by the misdirection, the half-truths, the rhetoric, etc. Just consider the last few given by our current President and those of President Bush. Both always delivered eloquent and for the most part inspiring speeches. But the partisan tone is so apparent, the substance of the points being presented become tainted.
Consider that President Bush, a conservative Republican, spent money so feverishly that our real debt explosion began during his watch. And President Obama walked right in to the White House with every intention of continuing that spending and growing the federal government to an unprecedented size.
Although I could spend the rest of this column pointing out the failed policies of the Bush Administration, that is old news. President Obama has now been the leader of our country for three years. Everything is now on his watch. He is completely accountable, along with Congress, for where we are today.

After three years of partisan bickering, trillions more of red ink, and a lower standard of living for most Americans, President Obama proudly proclaimed that the State of our Union is getting stronger. You cannot spin the real state of our union any better. Consider the following: the current national debt of the United States is at $15 trillion and growing, the share of that debt for the average American family is $250,000; we have over 23 million Americans out of work, and almost 50 million Americans receiving food stamps. And last but not least, our Congress and President have now operated our government for over 1000 days without an approved budget.

No wonder most Americans are angry and frustrated with government at all levels.

How do we fix the dire predicament that our selfish, arrogant, and power hungry elected officials have put us in? At least three areas come to mind that could help get us back on track as the strongest nation on earth. We should get our fiscal house in order, we should demand our elected officials play by the rules, and get government back as close to the people as possible.

Our fiscal affairs are on a path to implosion. The American people deserve and should demand a balanced budget with the only exception being during times of war and only then with a two-thirds majority agreeing that war or disaster conditions warrant deficit spending. It is criminal to me that a President and a Congress spend taxpayer dollars without an approved budget.

I wrote about reforming Congress recently where someone suggested and I agreed that elected officials should not be able to enrich themselves by trading stocks on insider information, that they should not receive lucrative retirements from serving their country, or health care programs that are better that the ones their constituents can afford. And they should not receive automatic pay increases while the pay of their constituents is flat to declining. Serving in an elected position should be an honor and require some level of sacrifice rather than being a lottery ticket to wealth and power.

And last but not least, power must be returned to the people by restoring it to its lowest common denominator or getting it back as close to the people as possible. The 10th Amendment of the US Constitution places all power not specifically granted the Federal Government should be that of the State governments. Unfortunately, Republican and Democrats alike have continued to usurp powers at the federal level.

It is time for the governors and state legislatures to take back all powers that are legitimately in their domain from the federal government. The current litigation over Obamacare could provide the legal precedent and process for States rights to once again be respected and appropriately given back to the states. Governors and state legislatures should become much more vigilant in keeping their federal counterparts consistent with our constitution.

Many of our state governments have also mismanaged their states financially and pushed burdens down to their local communities. Local elected officials are the closest to the citizens and therefore can and should keep an open dialogue about state issues and their impact on local governments. So again local city officials and county officials can and should work closely with state elected officials in holding them accountable.

If we are ever going to become the United States of America again and be the beacon to the rest of the world, everyone elected official should place the welfare of our country and the jurisdiction they represent over party allegiance, money, fame, or power. We became the country the rest of the world admired and envied through the efforts of servant leaders throughout our history. Career politicians and party hacks must be replaced by America’s next generation of servant leaders.

May God bless our community and our United States of America!