Mike O'Neal

About 60 were in attendance when Shannon Whitfield held his first regularly scheduled business meeting last Thursday. And rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame for the serious financial challenges he assumes as the county's first new commissioner in 16 years, he did what he knows how to do — get down to business.

Code enforcement was a major issue raised during the campaign and was among the first issues Whitfield addressed, saying he intends to add staff to help speed the process of citing violators and improving the county's look.

But the biggest issue of the evening (commissioner's meetings are now scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. twice monthly) concerned dealing with the county's financial woes.

Upon assuming office, Whitfield said the county had about $800,000 in its general fund. Unfortunately, the county had unpaid and overdue bills of about $3.5 million. A $227,000 bond payment was due early this week and debt service for the loan used for acquisition and preparation of the county's new industrial park is due before week's end.

For that reason Commissioner Whitfield had to fall back on a tax anticipation note (TAN) that allows borrowing with the promise of repayment as tax revenue is collected.

Local governments use TANs frequently, but Walker County's need is dire and immediate.

"I wasn't surprised" by the shortfall, Whitfield said, "but didn't expect it to happen so fast."

Making matters worse, projected revenue for the year now is about $275,00 less than anticipated, and even though total revenue is expected to be roughly $20 million this year, tax collections are expected to be about $1 million less than in 2016.

Whitfield told his audience that over the last several years the county's finances had deteriorated to a point that local banks were reluctant to loan any money, forcing the county to borrow from "what are essentially pay-day lenders."

Recent short-term loans have paid interest of about 4.5 percent — or higher — and charged high fees to boot.

Early in the day the commissioner said he had spoken with officials at The Bank of LaFayette, telling them the county needed to borrow $2 million right away and would probably need a total of about $8 million to see it through the year.

After delivering this gloomy message, Whitfield showed that, while not a miracle, good things can happen.

He said that at 5:15 p.m. — about an hour before his business meeting — The Bank of LaFayette delivered paperwork that extended a $4 million line of credit to the county. That money will be available before this week's two debt service payments are due and the remainder can be as needed. Not only will the money be available, interest will only be charged on the actual amounts as they are borrowed — and at an interest rate of less than 3 percent.

"This gets the county in a position to deal with the business of government and not deal with creditors," Whitfield said.

As part of this first meeting, the commissioner again stressed how local government transparency will improve, how audit results will be made available online in a timely manner and that quarterly financial reports and regular commission meeting reports and minutes likewise will be made available.

When asked about SPLOST collections, Whitfield said collections were about $600,000 below projections and that the special purpose local option sales tax money has already been spent. Money from the general fund was used to cover that shortfall, he said.

It was been a busy first week in office, one that involved hiring staff and coming to grips with the county debt, something that he championed during his campaign.

With The Bank of LaFayette keeping the wolves from its door, the newly installed commissioner has time to be proactive, moving forward rather than reacting to crises carried over from the previous administration.

"Election's over. We've got to come together," Whitfield said.

Mike O'Neal, assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger, can be reached by email moneal@npco.com.

Mike O'Neal is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga. He can be reached at the Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at moneal@npco.com.