Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield still isn't certain why some officials are questioning the legality of his proposed 2018 budget.

Clerk of Court Carter Brown, during a presentation of the new budget on Oct. 5, said, "On behalf of myself, the other constitutional officers, other county officials, .... we want to inform you that we object to this budget and that we bring into question the legality of the process that you are following to adopt this budget." Carter then left.

Brown couldn't be reached at his office the next afternoon or on Monday, Oct. 9. An office spokesman said Brown was on vacation.

Walker County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker, asked about Brown's charges, declined to comment.

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson, regarding Carter's charges, said, "The commissioner and I have spoken about no funding for patrol vehicles in the fiscal year 2018 budget. He has told me he and I will revisit the issue in mid-January 2018, after revenue begins coming in."

The sheriff's department has needed new patrol vehicles for some time because they have exceeded the mileage requirement, Wilson said.

Whitfield's response

On Monday, Oct. 9, Whitfield said he has not spoken to Brown. But he believes Carter and other department heads are upset because they believe they weren't given the legally required time to review the budget.

"From what I am understanding, he is stating that we should have made that final budget available seven days in advance (of the Oct. 5 meeting)," Whitfield said.

"The state law states that when you do your property tax increases and you are working on your budget, that you are to hold three public meetings. ... So we elected to have five meetings to be more transparent and to show more accountability for what we were doing," Whitfield said.

In all of the meetings, where 50-plus citizens attended, there was a rough draft budget presented at each, Whitfield said.

If a copy of the budget is asked for review, the commissioner must make it available seven days in advance of when the budget is approved, Whitfield said.

"We've had those documents available, the draft budgets we have been working on. But no one has requested to view those — not a private citizen, not an elected official, not any of the staff. Zero. We have had zero requests for any more information on the budget and what we have put out. So it really surprised me when he came in and made that statement."

The budget was not finalized until about an hour before the Oct. 5 meeting because the commissioner's office was still working to get it balanced," Whitfield said.

"It was a self-imposed deadline that we placed on ourselves to get that budget done and we came pretty close to the wire to get that done," Whitfield said.

The commissioner said if there is a need to give a seven-day notice on the final budget, then that is not a problem and can be accomplished at the next commissioner's meeting on Oct. 26.

"We will just reaffirm the budget we've already put out there," Whitfield said.

Whitfield said the 73-page budget is available online as well.

Department heads are also upset over deep budget cuts, he said.

"I know there is some heartburn across our entire county government system of the cuts we had to make, because we had a little over $2 million in request that we could not fulfill because we did not have the revenue. Even after the tax increase, we had over $2 million we just didn't have the money for," Whitfield said.

Whitfield said there are five buildings with leaking roofs, including the health department, jail and sheriff's department.

"Is this budget perfect? No. Is it going to probably be amended throughout the year to accommodate things we later run across or find? Yes, we probably will need to amend this budget over time," Whitfield said. "But at least for the first time in 16 years, we have a budget for every department. That has not been done in many, many years."

The commissioner said if there are excess funds located, or there are fewer expenses than anticipated, then the county can make those amendments and adjustments to the budget.

"But we will do all of that in a public meeting," he said.

After 16 years, why object now?

During Commissioner Bebe Heiskell's 16-year administration, the budget was presented as a three- to four-page summary, Whitfield said.

Giving a detailed and transparent budget gives citizens a look at how their money is being spent, Whitfield said.

"That's not about me trying to be a dictator or a control," he said. "That is about being accountable to the taxpayer to where the money is going, and also to show fiscal responsibility to those tax dollars."

Whitfield said those policies will hold true to his office and to all of his staff as well.

"Anything over $15,000, even if it is in the budget, it's going to go before those public meetings. It's going to be itemized on the agenda. It's going to be brought up and discussed and justified. That is the key. It is going to be justified in the public meeting on why we are spending those dollars," Whitfield said.

Asked, in his experience, did he see objections like this in the previous administration, Whitfield said, "No, I did not. It really brings to question 'why not'?"

"We have been so much more transparent and so much more detailed and being able to go back and show all the way back to 2013. I wonder that same question in my mind. Why was Carter Brown not asking for this same information under the previous administration? I think that is a very fair question," Whitfield said.

Asked who the real burden will fall on, given the debt looming over the county, Whitfield said, "It is very clear that with the tax increases and the fee increases that we've had to impose on the citizens, they are going to have some heartburn when they get their tax bills. I get that. I see that and it is regretful that we were forced to make those increases due to the debt and the burden of the previous administration put this county in. But, with that being said, it is not fair for the private citizens to have heartburn if the government itself, internally, is not willing to have the heartburn. So I do know that some of our departments as well as our elected officials all have heartburn right now, but so does the taxpayer. So it's a two-way street and we are having to make sacrifices as private citizens with tax increases and we are going to have to make sacrifice as a government with budget cuts. So for us to get out of this mess, it's going to take both to accomplish the ultimate goal of getting this county out of debt."

Josh O'Bryant is a general assignment reporter and covers the Walker-Catoosa County area. He can be reached at the Walker County Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at jobryant@npco.com.