Shannon Whitfield, Walker County's new commissioner, said he inherited millions in immediate debt from the previous administration.
Whitfield, speaking to a packed meeting room Thursday, Jan. 12, said he was forced to seek a tax anticipation loan (TAN) to survive. The TAN, essentially a short-term loan, must be paid off by the end of 2017, he said.
"I was hoping we could get through a couple of months without having to be in a position that we have to go borrow any money to operate," said Whitfield, who took over from Bebe Heiskell on Jan. 1. "But every day we come in and it gets a little bit worse. So, in round numbers, what was left over from 2016 amounts to about $3.5 million that we don't have the money."
Whitfield said he was "not shocked" to learn that the county faces such debt, including a bond payment of roughly $227,000 that is due Jan. 15 and a bond payment for the newly built industrial park development totaling $1.2 million that is due Jan. 20.
Those two debts are only what must be paid in January, he said.
Starting with only $1 million on hand Thursday, after making payroll Friday that number was cut in half, leaving Walker County with $500,000. Payroll is paid every two weeks.
"What we wanted to do was to make sure our projections were as solid as they can be of how much we were going to need to get us through this calendar year before the property tax money starts coming in again," he said.
"We have come to the conclusion that we are going to be about $8 million short to get us through the year," he said. "We don't need all that money right now, but we need a couple million dollars of it right away to pay these bond payments."
After learning that local banks were refusing to loan the county anymore money, Whitfield met with The Bank of LaFayette. He said he told the bank the county would need $8 million to make it through 2017, but would need $2 million immediately.
The Bank of LaFayette agreed to loan the county $2 million right away and returned after a board meeting to offer a loan of $4 million to help the county as a line of credit. The interest rate, Whitfield said, would not exceed 3 percent.
The loan is expected to be made available next week and the county will be able to pull from those funds as needed.
"We are going to prove to them that we are going to manage this government correctly," Whitfield said. "We are going to do the right thing and we are going to make sure every dollar that goes out of here screams because it has been pulled and tug on so much .... If it goes out of here it's going to be well-vetted that we spent that money correctly. That gets us to where all our bills are caught up, all our vendors paid current, and gets the stress load off of the other elected officials who are getting phone calls constantly. Our staff is getting phone calls daily, and this will get us into a position where we can focus on making changes instead of answering phone calls from creditors."
Some good news is that Whitfield said his new administration has been able to lower total employee costs. "We have already reduced our annual outlay for employee costs just out of this office by $660,000 a year," he said.
Whitfield said operational costs on projects like Mountain Cove Farms, which is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars, are being looked at. The county hopes to lease the operation with help from the Development Authority, which oversees the property.
"It's so highly leveraged, we can hardly sell it," Whitfield said.
Whitfield said the county is losing a half-million dollars on the landfill.
"We are going to do everything we can do to cut as much spending as we can without negatively effecting services. And in some areas, we are going to have to increase some investment such as codes enforcement. We are going to have to bring some people on," he said.
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 email@example.com.