Before the year started, I said if the Columbia County school system was a city, it would be the 36th largest town in Georgia. The record-setting student population has now topped 20,000, so the system would be closer to 34th largest.
Those pupils are part of a county population that has likely exceeded 100,000 -- and most of them seem to be driving at the same time on the county's streets. Traffic has gotten awful.
But don't fret: We're building sidewalks in front of the government complex! That'll fix the problem!
I know, putting sidewalks in front of the Justice Center doesn't keep us from working on transportation issues elsewhere. Besides; those sidewalks are part of long-scheduled improvements in the town center.
Still, the traffic gridlock gets worse every day. We sit in long lines of cars on Washington Road or Furys Ferry and curse the government officials who haven't poured enough pavement.
So we miss the whole point. It shouldn't be about making room for more cars. It should be about bringing in fewer people.
The school system is building roughly one new campus every year to keep up with the new residents, many of whom are rescuing their kids from Richmond County's schools.
In theory, here's what that immigration means:
The school system now has 662 more students enrolled than last year. If those students all were enrolled in one school, they would represent the 13th-largest in the county -- bigger than all but four elementary schools, even bigger than two of the middle schools.
At a ratio of 20:1, that growth equals 33 new teachers, with salaries and benefits hovering close to $2 million. And that doesn't include administrators, support staff and space to put them in. Or air-conditioned buses to get them there.
County officials respond to complaints about those crowded streets -- which get more crowded at school opening and closing -- by building more streets. School officials, who can't do anything about population or transportation, shrug and figure out how to accommodate the new students.
Neither seem to have figured out that the problem is too many people swarming to get a piece of the action here. I can tell you who has figured it out: Wayne Hill.
He's the chairman of the Gwinnett County Commission, derided as the "Sultan of Sprawl" for presiding over Gwinnett's tremendous growth. (Gwinnett is seven times a big as Columbia County.) Hill was beaten last week in a runoff for re-election, and The Atlanta Constitution points out that much of his opponent's support came from residents alarmed at Hill's growth-at-any-cost attitude.
Population growth fuels the construction industry, fills restaurant tables, brings readers to newspapers. But just as there may be only a few sips' difference between a social drinker and an alcoholic, so also does too much population growth leave us staggering.
The same people who keep commerce humming also clog our streets and overload our classrooms. More than 86 percent of voters in the July 20 Democratic primary agree with me that those new residents should have to pay admission to our county in the form of an impact fee on new development.
It's too late for that money to be used to build a sidewalk at the government complex. You and I are already paying for that, and many of us will drive past it -- slowly, stuck in traffic. But impact-fee money could build a bike path for the kids attending the new elementary school being built in Evans. And it could raise the admission price enough that maybe they'd come to Columbia County a little slower, and give the road-builders time to catch up.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal@ newstimesonline.com.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.