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County's cupboard is bare
Walker is $70 million in debt and has negative cash flow, a millage increase is imminent

While running for office, Shannon Whitfield knew that indebtedness was a given. What was unknown in the fall of 2016 was a dollar amount.

And the 2016 audit, a snapshot of the county's financial health, does not paint a rosy picture.

A little more than six months into his first year as commissioner Whitfield has found the county awash in red ink with a total debt of about $70 million.

The report prepared by the accounting firm of Johnson, Hickey & Murchison for the period Nov. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2016, and completed on July 20, 2017, shows the county presently is adding to, rather than paying down, its financial obligations.

That is why Whitfield's first budget since taking the reins of county government includes a tax increase of 20-25 percent for property owners.

"I think the biggest thing people need to be aware of is there is $7.5 million negative fund balance, which stated in the audit, is a $7.5 million negative position to pay our creditors and ongoing obligations as of September 30, 2016," he said. "So basically, it's telling us we're extremely underfunded to be able to even operate and have a positive cash flow.

"The folks at ACCG (Association County Commissioners of Georgia), in their training, state that a county's fund balance should be two to three times its monthly expenses.

"Our monthly expenses are around $2 million. We ought to have a $4 to $6 million positive fund balance and instead we're negative $7.5 million."

The county's fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and the commissioner is currently working to prepare a budget for 2018 that aims to lower debt levels while raising revenue without reducing services. But to accomplish that task may require a tax increase.

Crafting a budget — whether for a business, a household or a government — is never easy, but for someone drowning in red

Property tax increase public hearings announced

Public notice of a proposed millage rate increase (25.58 percent in unicorporated and 20.05 percent in the incorporated areas) for Walker County land owners can be seen on page A8 in today's edition. Public hearings regarding tentative increases of about 2 mills will be held on Aug. 17 at the LaFayette-Walker County Public Library, on Aug. 19 at the Civic Center and on Aug. 24 at the Commissioner's Office. If adopted, taxes for a home with a fair market value of $100,000 will increase roughly $76 annually in unincorporated and $83 in incorporated areas.

ink it is like swimming against the tide while holding a brick of debt in each hand.

Whitfield has been trimming costs at every turn since taking over the helm of government in January, but changing course — much less making headway — takes time.

Careful budgeting has had a significant effect on reducing dayto-day operating expenses, but have all the easy cuts been made? Payroll reduction has been a plus and profitability at the landfill is not only welcome but shows change is possible.

"It further drives home the point that the landfill has been highly mismanaged, showing losses of over $600,000 a year," Whitfield said during a July commissioner's meeting. "As of June's income statement though, we've turned that into a profit for the month.

The commissioner said that this past June was probably the first time in 16 1/2 years that the landfill had shown a profit.

"It shows what we've been talking about for months,' the commissioner said."The county is $70 million in debt. Those are real numbers and the audit backs up what we've been saying for well over a year — that we have a very high level of debt compared to our revenue stream.

" So basically, if we stayed on the same course and pace, it will take us over 20 years to pay our way out of this debt, since we're already paying out over $2 million a year in interest charges. So, in the next few days, we'll be talking more about a plan to be able to get this county completely out of debt in 10 years."

Collections of optional sales taxes have fallen in recent years, partly due to the county's small retail base compared to nearby counties in Georgia and Tennessee and partly due to a greater share of those funds being allocated to Walker County's four municipalities.

The auditor's report show revenue for 2016 remained fairly constant compared to 2015, but at the same time property tax collections increased 43 percent while optional sales tax revenue decreased by about 7 percent.

The greatest expenditures were for health and welfare (24 percent), the sheriff's office (18 percent), public safety (16 percent), public works (13 percent), general government (12 percent) and judicial services (9 percent), according to the audit.

The remaining total of 8 percent was spent on interest payments for long term debt (4 percent), housing and development (2 percent), intergovernmental payments (1 percent) and recreation and culture (1 percent).

In addition to the budgeted items, the commissioner had no way of anticipating costs associated with environmental protective action made necessary when E. coli was discovered at one of the county wells. Neither were increased charges to treat sewage at the Moccasin Bend Treatment Plant, charges swollen by increased volume due storm water infiltration of the sanitary sewer system..

While no one favors hiking property taxes, raising property taxes is more than a possiblity — the upcoming budget is based on a higher millage rate.

But much like the county debt, exactly how much is unknown at present.


Blood Assurance recruiting more platelet donors

Its mission is straightforward — To provide a safe and adequate supply of blood and blood components, in a cost effective manner, to every area patient in need— and has not changed since its founding in 1972.

Over more than four decades, Blood Assurance has expanded its service area and scope of services. No longer does BA provide only whole blood for transfusion, it also meets needs for plasma and platelet products for chemotherapy, trauma surgery and transplant operations.

That is why a new campaign,"Step Up To The Platelets," is underway.

"Every 30 seconds someone in the U.S. needs platelets to help fight cancer, treat a chronic disease or a traumatic injury," Rick Youngblood, Blood Assurance president and CEO, said when the program launched in May. "And because platelets must be used within five days of donation, new donors are constantly in need. The patients receiving platelet transfusions are cancer and trauma patients who often require them on a frequent basis and for many, they are a lifeline."

That constant demand for ongoing treatments combined with their short shelf life means shortages are the norm, not an exception.

That is why some donors of Type A+, B+ and AB blood, for which the demand is less than for other blood types, are being asked to donate plasma or platelets, according to Executive Director of Community Outreach Jay Baumgardner.

Platelet donations take slightly longer to complete than those of

whole blood donations where no fluids are returned to the donor. But that extra time is compensated by platelet donations being less taxing on the body. That is particularly important during hot weather, when drawing blood can cause a sense of fatigue brought on by dehydration.

"Platelet donations actually rehydrate our donors," Baumgardner said during the quarterly meeting of Blood Assurance's North Georgia Advisory Board.

During a platelet donation, blood is taken from one arm and channeled through a sterile, disposable kit and into a machine that separates the blood into different components with platelets being kept while the rest of the blood is returned to the donor.

Not only are more platelets able to be collected this way than with a whole blood donation, platelet donations can be made more frequently.

While a healthy individual can donate whole blood once every 56 days, or six times a year, but platelet donations can be repeated every seven days — up to 24 times per year.

"We want to encourage people to come and donate in August, period, or at least four times a year to help all those in need," Baumgardner said.

Nationwide, he said one out of every seven patients in a hospital will require a blood product of some sort. Whether platelets, plasma or whole blood, to donate blood is to truly give the gift of life.

"Platelets are in constant demand by hospitals to help give cancer patients the strength they need to keep fighting and help patients survive serious injuries and major surgeries," said Dr. Jennifer Keates-Baleeiro, MD, MA, pediatric specialist at Children's Hospital at Erlanger. "The platelets you donate may help save a cancer patient just a few days following your donation, as patients battling cancer often lack platelets due to the cancer or as a side effect of treatment. Seeing platelets save the lives of my patients every day I can tell you first hand that they are constantly in need. I urge you to donate and help those in your community, young and old, get the platelets that are essential for their recovery."

During the month of August, all Blood Assurance donors will be entered into a drawing to win a $1,500 travel voucher.

To schedule an appointment to donate platelets at any Blood Assurance center, text 'STEP' to 444999, or call 800-962-0628.

To be eligible to donate, you must be at least 18 years old (17 and 16 years old with parental consent), weigh 110 pounds or more and be in good health. Donors are asked to drink plenty of fluids (avoiding caffeine) and eat a meal that is rich in iron prior to donating.

Blood is comprised of three primary components used in transfusions: plasma, red blood cells and platelets.

Plasma

The liquid part of the blood and lymphatic fluid, which makes up about half of its volume. Plasma is devoid of cells and, unlike serum, has not clotted. Blood plasma contains antibodies and other proteins.

Red Blood Cells

One of the blood cells that carry oxygen. Red cells contain hemoglobin and it is the hemoglobin that permits them to transport oxygen (and carbon dioxide). Hemoglobin, aside from being a transport molecule, is a pigment that gives the cell its red color. Platelets

An irregular, disc-shaped element in the blood that assists in blood clotting. During normal blood clotting, the platelets clump together. Although platelets are often classed as blood cells, they are actually fragments of large bone marrow cells called megakaryocytes.


Don't let your excitement eclipse safety during the Great American Eclipse

On the afternoon of Aug. 21, Georgians will have the opportunity to share in the experience of seeing the summer afternoon sky darken as the moon's shadow covers the sun, and they are excited.

It's going to be quite a show, but it's important that eclipse viewers don't get so caught up in the hype that they abandon safety, said Pam Knox, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agricultural climatologist.

It sounds obvious, but no one should look directly at the sun — even during the eclipse — without eclipse glasses from a reputable source, she said.

"Even at 99 percent coverage, the sun is so strong that it can do some real, permanent damage to your eyesight," Knox said. "No one should look at the eclipse without glasses."

Everyone in the continental United States will experience some level of solar eclipse on Aug. 21, but the total solar eclipse will be only visible in a wide swath stretching from Salem, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina.

Only viewers in the very northeast corner of Georgia will see the sun completely blocked by the moon's

shadow. The rest of the state will see an 87 to 99 percent eclipse between 1 and 4 p.m. No matter where viewers are in the state, it is not safe to look at the sun without eye protection.

Even occasional quick glances up at the sun can damage the eyes and cause burns to the retina — these cells at the back of the eye are responsible for processing light information. The damage, which appears as blurry spots in the field of vision, may be temporary, but very well could be permanent, according to NASA.gov. Eclipse-viewing glasses or solar shields are necessary to prevent eye damage. Dark orpolarized sunglasses will not protect your eyes.

"The eclipse glasses are so dark that if you put them on and look outside now, you wouldn't be able to see anything," Knox said. "If you can see anything through your eclipse glasses, they're not strong enough."

Consumers should only buy glasses from reputable dealers. Earlier this summer, NASA.gov posted a list of eclipse glasses manufacturers that they have certified as safe. That list is available at eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety.

Consumers should be wary of noncertified glasses because there are a lot of fake eclipseviewing classes out there this year, Knox said.

Consider joining agroup viewing party at an area park or nature center. Many schools and parks departments around the state and across the country will host organized eclipsewatching parties where they will provide glasses, eclipse shields or other safe ways of viewing the eclipse.

Knox is helping to host UGA's Eclipse Viewing Party at Sanford Stadium from 1 to 4 p.m. on Aug. 21. Sponsored by the UGA Athletic Association, UGA Atmospheric Sciences Program, Frankin College of Arts and Sciences and Department of Geography, the event includes disposable eclipse glasses that will be available for the crowd.

Another option for safely watchingthe eclipse includes building an eclipse projector out of wood or cardboard. "Pinhole viewers" allow people to safely watch the projection of the eclipse on a piece of paper or board. NASA.gov features directions for some of these viewers and there are many other project tutorials online as well.

For more information about eclipse safety and the path of the eclipse through Georgia, visit eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety. For more information about weather and climate in Georgia, visit blog. extension.uga.edu/climate/.

Merritt Melancon is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.


Welcome Dr. Bennett, Orthodontist!

"Dr. Mason is pleased to announce that Dr. William Bennett has joined the practice of Mason Family Dentistry. Dr. Bennett is your orthodontic specialist, offering braces and Invisalign for children, and adults. At your first appointment with Dr. Bennett, you'll quickly see that he loves being an orthodontist. He recognizes that each patient is unique and enjoys the challenge of designing each person's perfect smile. Dr. Bennett has a long history of hard work in school and on his family's farm that prepared him well for this position. He was raised in Screven, a small town in Southeast Georgia. He is the youngest of five children, and now has 15 nieces and nephews. His professional education began at the University of Georgia, where he earned his pharmacy degree in 1999. He worked for a few years as a pharmacist for the Indian Health Service in the Western US and Alaska - Ask him about this experience for plenty of great stories! He returned to Georgia to complete his education in both medicine (M.D.) and dentistry (D.M.D) at the Medical College of Georgia. While finishing dental school he discovered his love for orthodontics, and continued to earn his certificate in orthodontics and M.S.D. at the University of Colorado.

Now, as LaFayette's newest orthodontist, acquiring the practice of Dr. Stuart Loos, Dr. Bennett is excited to bring the most up to date technologies and advancements in orthodontics to his patients. When Dr. Bennett is not at the office, you'll find him active in the Rome community and many local dental organizations. He volunteers time at the Rome free dental clinic and is a member of the American Association of Orthodontists, the Southern Association of Orthodontics, the American Dental Association, the Georgia Dental Association, and the Northwest District Dental As sociation. Dr. Bennett is married to Mary Taylor, who you will also meet in the office. They have one daughter, Ellie Grace, age 2. At this time they also have another on the way."