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Posted: May 27, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Trails can make economic sense

"When a rural community with a large base of farm and forestland begins to convert that land into residential development, either as a planned growth strategy or due to market forces and a lack of growth control measures, the local government is virtually guaranteed to head down a path of deteriorating financial stability and increasing local property tax rates."

When Jeffrey Dorfman and other UGA researchers published that finding in 2002, Newton County was on the path to becoming poster child for such a doomsday scenario. From 70 studies nationwide, Dorfman's team found, on average, residential property cost local government $1.15 in services for every dollar of taxes collected - a negative cash flow of 15 cents. By contrast, government kept 71 cents of every tax dollar for commercial/industrial property and 63 cents for farmland, forests, and open spaces. From 1990 to 2010, the acreage for residential property in Newton County increased 75 percent, adding nearly 31,000 acres of housing. The 2008 economic collapse may have kicked the stool from beneath us, but we put the noose around our neck long before.

Consider the decade from 2000 to 2010. County population grew 61 percent. School enrollment jumped 73 percent, adding 8,088 new students to classrooms. According to the FBI, crimes reported in Newton County increased 136 percent, from 1,891 to 4,460. Education and Public Safety are mandated government services, and these staggering increases added significant, unavoidable costs.

Meanwhile, county sales tax revenues grew only 24 percent over that same period. And, of course, property tax collections took a nosedive at the end of the decade. Those who believe we can save our way out of this mess by reducing government spending are not paying attention. Dorfman is no Nostradamus, but he foretold of our fall. And, yet, many of us still don't get it. We either find creative ways to invest in our anemic retail economy and attract new industry, or the downward spiral will continue, as cuts to schools and public safety undermine the fundamentals that either attract or repel new businesses and investment.

"Just Say No" may work as an anti-drug slogan, but it's abysmally poor leadership in times like these. Advocates for a Newton County rail-trail are well-versed in the economic results seen by other communities.Communities like Leadville, Colo., where sales tax revenues jumped 19 percent after opening the Mineral Belt Trail. Or, the towns across Maryland and Pennsylvania, where visitors to the Great Allegheny Passage trail spent nearly $41 million in 2008 (during a down economy). Or, places like Milford, Del., where the Mispillion River Greenway is credited with creating new businesses, 250 jobs, and $200 million in economic activity.

A trail is not the only answer. But, it is a proven approach for which we have investment dollars in hand. If elected leaders have other strategies, they owe it to us to share that vision now, for the sands of the hour glass have long since shifted against us.
No matter how tired you may be of discussing it, just saying "NO" is not enough. There is too much at stake.

Maurice Carter is chairman of the Newton County Trail-Path Foundation.

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