Who are Franklin County’s Aristocrats?

on Friday, 22 September 2017.

As a watcher of the political scene for the past 13 years or so, I’ve seen the ups and downs of political life in our beautiful county. As a county, we are poor but proud. For outsiders, life is pretty good. But, for many multi-generational locals, choices are limited and opportunities much too rare.

Let’s talk a bit about why that is and what can be done about it. You might think the aristocrats are the moneyed outsiders who come here to enjoy the spectacular scenery and relaxed lifestyle that our county is famous for. But while these individuals do a significant share of the charity, volunteering and most importantly, paying the taxes that support other people who are not so fortunate, they are not the Aristocrats of Franklin County. So who is?

I did not come up with the term Aristocrats on my own. It was a hospital worker who once described to me the lack of benefits at Weems and the apparent lack of interest (real or imagined) for their personal safety by county leaders, i.e. The Aristocrats. I remembered that person’s comment.

The Aristocrats of Franklin County are comprised of two groups: The first are certain old family individuals who have enjoyed the gift of opportunities not available to “normal folk,” job preferences, loans at the locally controlled banks (less so today), political pull, access to real estate deals and favorable outcomes from county and city government.

The second are the hundreds of county, city, school and hospital employees, and at the apex, elected officials who enjoy higher paying jobs, job security, great benefits and frequently a much less stressful work life. To be perfectly clear, what is true of the whole is not necessarily true of the specific. There are county employees who work very hard and are low paid for the work they do. There is a continuing and significant disparity in county government that generally favors constitutional employees over the various county departments. There are major variations in pay for similar work.

Years ago, the county spent many thousands of dollars on a comprehensive compensation plan designed to treat employees without favoritism or ambiguity. It stills sits on the shelf because that document would take away the power that resides with county commissioners at present and certain leaders won’t allow that to happen.

Most counties in Florida have a county manager who runs the day-to-day activities of government. However, Franklin County has neither a county manager nor code enforcement officer, leading to direct management by county commissioners. This is by design and a holdover from days long gone and needs to change to more efficiently and fairly meet the needs of individual citizens and the county as a whole.

There is a bit of Marie Antoinette in some of our county leaders. Recently, I witnessed commissioners not even respond to requests to look at an ever-growing budget that has led to an increase in taxes for the last three years. And, don’t let them fool you with “we did not raise the millage rate,” either. This year, as in last year, more money is being taken from taxpayers to cover a $52 million budget, up almost $2 million over last year’s spending. Commissioners did not even ask staff for potential reductions in spending to close a half-million dollar gap.

According to Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research; latest figures show tiny, rural Franklin County ranks as the seventh highest taxer per capita in the state. Why is that?

I can see France’s Marie Antoinette saying “Let them eat cake” as commissioners are wined and dined in Washington D.C. and at Florida Association of Counties’ extravaganzas, among other privileged events you pay for and can’t attend.

Our Constitution supports the concept of “Citizen Statesman.” You remember from your elementary school days “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” As such, every citizen is equal to every elected official. No one should be afraid or intimidated to address their commissioners but too many in Franklin County worry about retribution, which has been carried out in the past. I know of this personally. Further, it is the height of arrogance for an elected official to publicly engage in constituent bashing in a public forum (I’ve seen that multiple times) while enjoying the best jobs in the county. When any elected official somehow comes to feel they are above questioning, reproach, accountability or a duty to engage with those they are representing; they need to find a new line of work. There should be no difference between an old line citizen and someone who just purchased property; that’s both the law and is at the core of our American way of life. There are no second-class citizens; we are all supposed to be equal.

The Concerned Citizens of Franklin County continually seeks to engage local government on issues of financial and economic development. Our voice is your voice. If you have been ignored or treated unfairly by your elected officials, I’d like to hear from you. Please contact me through ABetterFranklin.com. It is your government and our elected Aristocrats that must be reminded from time-to-time that they are servants of the people and not the other way around.

Allan J. Feifer