Walker County Sole Commissioner Shannon Whitfield announced plans last week to update the county's fire fee schedule to offer improvements in fire protection and public safety efforts. The fee will now be known as a "public safety" fee and will fund fire and emergency management operations, along with contracted ambulance services.
The county will replace the existing flat rate with a minimum/maximum fee based on the square footage of each building. The move will create a more equitable system and result in thousands of property owners with smaller homes actually paying less each year in unincorporated Walker County and the City of Chickamauga.
The new rate calls for a $0.10 fee per
square foot on all buildings, with a minimum of $90 and maximum of $400 to be charged on a residential house, mobile home, duplex or triplex. This will lower fees on roughly 10,000 residential properties. For example, someone living in a 900-squarefoot home will now pay $90, instead of $130. A neighbor with a 1,200-square-foot house will now pay $120, instead of $130.
Residents who live in homes with 1,301 square footage space or more will notice an increase in their public safety fee. Revisions have also been made to the fee for agricultural, commercial and industrial buildings.
Commissioner Whitfield said, "Throughout the campaign, many citizens voiced their concerns about the fire fee not being equitable for someone living in a mobile home or small house, compared to residents that live in larger homes. It's clear by restructuring this fee, we can create a rate that's fair for all citizens of Walker County that also allows us to expand services and provide faster response times across the county."
At the same time, improvements in fire protection and public safety will spread across Walker County as the number of full-time career fire stations will be increased from 4 to 6. Station 14 in Villanow and Station 15 in the Cane Creek Community will transition to 24/7/365 operations. Full-time firefighters will also be relocated from Station 11, just west of LaFayette, to Station 20, near Highway 136 and Cove Road.
Walker County Emergency Services Chief Blake Hodge said, "We believe it's possible to significantly improve response times to 12 districts, based on recent improvements seen at Station 2 in Flintstone. The biggest impact will be in the Villanow area, where staffing Station 14 with full-time firefighters is estimated to reduce our response time from 24 to 9 minutes."
Station 2 in Flintstone transitioned to a full-time station in July. The county's other full-time stations are in Rock Spring and Chickamauga.
Commissioner Whitfield said, "I commend Chief Hodge for reviewing our call volume and developing a plan to reach residents faster, utilizing existing manpower and equipment."
The fire station restructuring will take place Oct.1, 2017, the same day the updated public safety fee schedule takes effect.
Knowing that Walker County is drowning in debt, Commissioner Shannon Whitfield was prepared to answer questions about property taxes for fiscal year 2018 that begins Oct. 1 — taxes that must increase if the county is to keep its head above water..
Addressing a crowd of about 60 who met at the LaFayette-Walker County Public Library, he had printed handouts, PowerPoint slides highlighting some of lowlights of the county's 2016 audit and 2018 budget worksheets.
This was the first of five public hearings about setting the tax rate necessary to adopt a budget.
While similar to most tax/budget meetings — there never seems to be enough money to meet every request, but essentials needed for continued operations are funded — but there was a major surprise.
Whitfield came prepared to answer questions about why the most recent audit shows the county is $70 million in debt — not including a court-ordered judgment of about $9 million due Chattanooga-based Erlanger hospital — and projects expenses exceeding revenue by about $7.5 million.
He was prepared to explain how taxes are spent and why it is imperative that the county raise more revenue, now and for the roughly 20 years it will take to pay off its financial obligations.
The commissioner was ready and willing to detail what led Walker County to today's precarious financial position, one he inherited upon taking office last January.
What Whitfield seemed unprepared for were suggestions that the county raise taxes even more than his proposed 2 mills or consider adding a separate tax or fee earmarked to settle Erlanger's claim.
By the numbers
The commissioner said he was as guilty as every other taxpayer in not having studied and questioned audits in recent years and had just accepted — on faith — that assurances that "things are fine" were true when in fact losses were mounting.
From showing $10 million more revenue than expenses in 2010, audits for 2014 and 2015 showed losses as did the 2016 figures.
Whitfield pointed out operations of the county-owned Mountain Cove Farms and the landfill on Marble Top Road reported losses of about $1 million during the last year of former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell's tenure. That was because there were unbudgeted expenses, those facilities were over staffed and (at the landfill) out-of-state users were given lower rates than justified.
"Instead of making money or breaking even, they were losing money," he said.
Whitfield also pointed out that use
of SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) revenue to complete site preparation work at the county industrial park that houses Audia had caused the loss of about $9 million of state money for local paving and road maintenance work.
Even with a 2 mill rate increase, revenue is projected to fall in the coming year, something the commissioner partially attributed to an aging population: more and more taxpayers qualify for age-related exemptions which lowers collections for the county's day to day operations.
A combination of these and other factors means preparing his first budget has been and continues to be a challenge. Whitfield said the various department heads have presented requests that total about $27 million.
That might be alright, though it only makes the minimum payments necessary to service county debt, except projections are that the county will only collect about $23 million in revenue. That leaves the commissioner and his staff with paring back everything that is not essential — taking out the wants — and instead budgeting for what is critical.
"At the end of the day we've gotta have a balanced budget," he said, adding that stretching the budget to cover that $4 million shortfall will take a lot of hard work and decision making over the next several weeks.
TSPLOST for paving the way
Even while fewer funds are available, there is an increased demand for upgrades to existing services. In some cases, such as fire protection services, those costs will be met by adjustments to fees — amounts that are not taxes but are collected at the same time taxes are paid.
One such fee announced last week, a public safety fee, was explained during the public hearing by the commissioner and Fire Chief Blake Hodge.
Rather than including the stipend paid for contracted ambulance services, first responders and emergency management as separate items on the general operations budget, this consolidated "public safety" fee will be kept in a separate account.
Rather than a flat annual charge of $130, the safety fee will be billed at a 10-cents per square foot of habitable space with a minimum of $90 and a maximum of $400 per structure. Money from this fee will help secure new fire stations, new equipment and full time fire fighters/EMTs.
Another funding source will require voters saying "yes" to voluntarily adding another 1 percent to all retail sales (excluding gasoline and diesel fuels) that will be earmarked for transportation related capital projects.
Whitfield projects that a TSPLOST, if adopted, is expected to bring in about $3 million annually. That amount could be used to free up about $1 million of state LMIG (local maintenance and improvement grant) money that is currently in an escrow account but is unavailable because the county lacks matching funds.
Because a regional TSPLOST was voted down in 2012, the county must provide 30 percent of a project's cost before the state kicks in any cash. Before the TSPLOST defeat, counties paid 10 percent of qualifying road project costs and the state paid 90 percent.
Whitfield said the county presently cannot afford to commit budgeted funds toward LMIG funding, not only the $1 million currently banked, but an amount that will grow by about that same amount when the state funds for the current year are delivered in December.
The commissioner said that not having the matching funds, funds that could have paved about 150 miles of county roads.
"When I saw that I thought I was going to be sick," he said.
And the situation could get worse. Whitfield told those attending the meeting that if LMIG money is not spent within three years of its allocation it must be returned.
Paying now or later
After Whitfield had laid out the sad state of the county's financial health, an unusual remedy was suggested from several of those attending the meeting. They possible onetime levy charged all residents that would retire the Erlanger debt, freeing the county to tackle its other obligations.
The commissioner said an additional tax would probably not be possible, but a dedicated fee, either a one-time charge or one for a few years, might be established to pay off that portion of the county's debts.
Whatever is decided, even as more cuts to the budget are made, a property tax increase is coming.
Whitfield said he had few options, either the 2 mill increase could be adopted or the more than 100-page budget could be scrapped and taxes raised even further.
Whatever decision is reached, the county faces decades of belt tightening and increased demands on taxes and other revenue to reverse the county's fiscal fiasco.
Since it took years to get so far in arrears, it will take years to correct.
And bankruptcy is out of the question.
Whitfield, a career businessman, said that a business or an individual filing for bankruptcy protection would be possible. But state law does not allow a local government to pursue that route. Instead, the commissioner and his staff will continue working to make the greatest dent in county debt while at the same time being as gentle on taxpayers' wallets as possible.
School is back in session in many Georgia systems. It may seem like summer is coming to a close, but peak summer mosquito season is just starting.
It's rained quite a bit in Georgia recently, and mosquito larvae are everywhere. Mosquitoes have already found items outside holding water. When it turns hot after this wet period, mosquito populations are going to flourish.
This is bad news for families that want to spend time outside after school and work.
The month between Aug. 15 and Sept. 15 is the peak period for West Nile virus transmission in Georgia, and this season may be more active than the past two years.
While Georgia hasn't seen many cases of West Nile in the past few years, it's never totally gone away. Today the virus is described by epidemiologists as "endemic" in Georgia, which basically means that it's always present at low levels.
Remember that West Nile was initially found in New York City in 1999 and detected in Georgia in 2001. The virus peaked in Georgia with 117 human cases in 2012. The virus commonly cycles from infected birds to mosquitoes. Occasionally, an infected mosquito will bite a human.
Thankfully, only 1 out of 5 people exposed to the virus becomes ill, but those who do can develop very serious cases that involve encephalitis or meningitis. If someone you know becomes ill after being exposed to mosquitoes, or becomes ill and exhibits mental confusion, get them to a doctor immediately.
This summer, there have been seven cases of humans with West Nile in Georgia, and public health and mosquito control officials have found 105 pools of mosquitoes in DeKalb, Fulton and Chatham counties, where testing is being conducted, that tested positive for the virus.
A "pool" of mosquitoes typically consists of 25 mosquitoes of the same species collected at
one site. They are combined into one sample and tested to determine if any were exposed to the virus.
A "positive pool" means mosquitoes are circulating West Nile in that area. Officials perform this routine testing to determine how to focus mosquito control resources.
The best way to prevent mosquitoes and the spread of West Nile is to eliminate their habitat. Mosquito larvae and pupae require standing water to develop. Given our current rainy conditions, extreme diligence is required to eliminate standing water.
Now is the time to take action. Mosquito larvae are everywhere. Dump standing water at least once a week. If standing water can't be eliminated and you see mosquito larvae, commonly called "wigglers," or mosquito pupae, commonly called "tumblers," the site should be treated with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved larvicide or pupacide. Local garden centers or feed-and-seed stores typically carry these products. Homeowners should read and follow all label instructions when applying treatments for mosquitoes.
It is also important to remember the best techniques to preventing mosquito bites. Light-colored, loose fitting clothing provides a significant barrier. Exposed skin should be treated with an EPA-approved repellent — there are many options that are widely available.
Children as young as 2 months old can be treated with DEET-based products, but always apply the repellent to the hands of an adult and then rub the repellent on the child's exposed skin.
Thankfully, other mosquito-borne illnesses, like Zika, are not a problem in Georgia. Zika infections have decreased worldwide, and Georgia doesn't have a significant population of the mosquito that transmits Zika.
That said, Georgians must still be aware of and eliminate mosquito populations to prevent nuisance mosquitoes and mosquitoes that carry West Nile. Mosquito populations are going to rise if diligence is not exercised. Dump standing water! Check your yard, those potted plants and the associated trays and dishes. Also, support your local mosquito control program or local public health district that makes a difference communitywide.
For more information about mosquitoes and controlling mosquito populations, visit www.caes.uga.edu/departments/entomology/extension/controlling-mosquitoes.html.
Elmer Gray is a Cooperative Extension entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.