About 50 residents of the Cove Road and Kensington areas asked and learned about roads, codes and water during the first of eight community forums with Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield and his staff Monday evening, Feb. 4, at the Cedar Grove Community Center on West Cove Road.

And they heard what many came with anxiety about, but what they hoped to hear: “I hope we’re done raising taxes. … My goal is to get Walker County completely out of debt and never go back.”

After Whitfield spent about 20 minutes reviewing a number of key issues for the county, the rest of the evening was a congenial and informative open dialogue and Q&A time with the commissioner.

Whitfield first reminded attendees that the county’s debt had dropped more than 33 percent since 2017 and was now down to $46,454,132.

While many county roads are in poor repair, progress is being made and planned. Nickajack Road and Diamond Circle have been repaved using TSPOLST funding, which brings in about $300,000 per month. However, it is recommended that counties resurface about 5% of their roads annually to keep up proper maintenance, noted Whitfield. There are about 700 miles of roads in the county, and repaving is not cheap. Each mile of road costs about $150,000 to repave and about $50,000 to $100,000+ for preparation, especially rebuilding the road base when that is needed.

Whitfield announced that the county has committed to the second phase of a repaving plan for 2019, with 10 of the county’s worst roads scheduled for repaving. These include Peavine Road in the Rock Spring area; Ringgold Road, also in the Rock Spring area; Five Points Road in Chickamauga; Osborn Road in Chickamauga; South Dicks Creek Road in Armuchee Valley; South Burnt Mill Road in the LaFayette area; Dry Valley Road and West Schmitt Road in the Rossville area; Glass Mill Road in Chickamauga; and Jones Road in the Noble area. He also reminded the audience that Walker County has more than 20 miles of roads that have never been paved.

Whitfield also discussed progress bringing properties in the county up to code and in cleaning up blight, junk and unsightly debris throughout the county. In 2018 there were 2,326 code violations cited, with 819 home and property owners coming up to code. There were also 49 community cleanup projects, from which 113 tons of debris were removed.

These are community projects where teams from churches, the Scouts, Covenant College students and other groups volunteer to help residents, often disabled, impoverished, and/or elderly, clean up their properties.

In other areas, Whitfield reported that litter control using local prison inmates was staying strong at just over 61 tons for each of the past two years. He noted, however, that the problem was so overwhelming that the county was hiring a second litter control leader to supervise a second team of inmates. He said a number of factors contributed to the problem, but said that county residents must take pride in their community and refuse to litter before a sustainable difference could be seen.

Updates were also given on the Vision 2030 project and Walker Rocks, which generated more than $88,000 last year in tourism sales tax revenue.

Dialogue topics

Several residents expressed concern with water lines in the community having never been finished and not having fire hydrants. Whitfield said “that is a real wake-up call for me,” and noted that the county water/sewer authority had recently been authorized $300,000 to replace pumps in three wells at the coke ovens in Chickamauga.

He explained that many water lines were laid under road pavement, so they had to coordinate water-line projects with road repaving projects. He also explained that fire hydrants required a minimum four- inch line, and preferably a 6-8 inch line, to ensure the proper pressure for hydrant use. He said the county had about 400 miles of water lines, but that eight other water companies also operated in the county.

Other residents voiced concerns and asked questions concerning property tax rates and burdens upon some residents. Whitfield explained that as the Erlanger debt was paid off and as more income was generated by sales taxes and other revenue, the tax burden would ease. “I hope we’re done raising taxes,” he said. He reassured those in attendance that “my goal is to get Walker County completely out of debt and never go back.”

One Cove area resident asked if the county would or could take over garbage collection versus private firms providing that service, to which Whitfield reminded everyone that “the most expensive way to do anything is for the government to do it.”

In discussing more industry and jobs in the county, Whitfield and Robert Wardlaw, the county's economic and community development director, both assured the audience that if an interested party “comes to benefit Walker County and is not seeking handouts” in tax exemptions and other incentives which would hurt, not help, the county, they are most welcome. In addition, Wardlaw reminded the audience that they cannot do anything without public meetings and public hearings.

Wardlaw said one of the first questions he is asked by prospective businesses, industries and investors is “tell us about your workforce and education.” That, not short-term tax breaks, is what draws and grows serious businesses, and Wardlaw said, “We’re cheerleaders for them like wild animals.”

In thanking the Cove community for its interest, attendance, dialogue, and support, Whitfield reminded everyone that “we’ve got to think ahead and get out of debt” first. That takes planning and a team vision and effort from everyone leading the county and everyone living in the county and benefiting from county services, he said.

Additional community forums will be held at 6 p.m. at the following locations:

· Monday, Feb. 11, at Armuchee Valley Community Center (11471 GA-136, LaFayette)

· Monday, Feb. 18, at LaFayette-Walker County Library (305 S Duke Street, LaFayette)

· Tuesday, Feb. 19, at Center Post Community Center (8125 GA-337, LaFayette)

· Thursday, Feb. 21, at Fairyland Elementary School (1306 Lula Lake Road, Lookout Mountain)

· Monday, Feb. 25, at Mt. Pleasant Community Center (5270 GA-157, Rising Fawn)

· Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Chickamauga Civic Center (1817 Lee Clarkson Road, Chickamauga)

Two forums have already been held: Monday, Feb. 4, at Cedar Grove Community Center (5395 W Cove Road, Chickamauga) and Tuesday, Feb. 5, at Rossville Civic Center (400 McFarland Avenue, Rossville)