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No lions, no tigers, no bears, Oh My!
Ag Festival celebrates county's agriculture, past, present and future

The Walker County Ag Festival has all the trappings of an old-time county fair. The only fair-like things missing from the one-day event will be midway rides.

And that is as it should be because the stated purpose of the Ag Fest is to "showcase our agricultural history, agricultural product, local school and community organization and local talent."

While it might sound like a lot to attempt for an inaugural event, organizers expect a big turnout for this all-day festival that will be held Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Walker County Ag Center in Rock Spring.

What prompted this was several of the ag teachers talking about the lack of a fair for students to have opportunities to show their skills, according to Becky Forrester, agriculture education teacher and FFA advisor at Gordon Lee High School and member of the festival committee.

"The county fairs during the last few years had shown there was an interest in the traditional fairs," she said. "This affords a chance to have a one-day event that showcases the county's students.".

Forrester said the organizers decided to focus on "true agricultural events" because visitors to the fairs held at Mountain Cove Farms "kept inquiring about the animal displays."

Joan Fowler, a member of the festival committee and on County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield's staff, said organizers want to not only offer students a showcase for their efforts but to remind residents that ours is a rural county.

"We are trying to show that agriculture is not something that only takes place in south Georgia," she said.

Focusing attention on the local importance of ag-related industry was key to planning this year's festival, said Michael Gardner, agriculture teacher at LaFayette High School.

"Ag is the No. 1 industry in Walker County and in the state of Georgia," he said.

LHS's ag teacher said it is sometimes easy to forget how popular ag-related projects are in local schools, even as the area becomes less rural and more of a bedroom community for nearby cities and industries.

"Several of those showing at the festival keep their goats at school during the show season," Gardner said. "A lot of the kids don't live on the farm — they live in the city."

The teachers agreed that raising livestock helps youngsters build confidence, learn responsibility and gives every child an opportunity to participate in an activity that aims to serve individuals and groups.

The festival on Saturday lets them proudly show the result of their hard work and dedication.

"This will, in some ways, recall the county fairs of the past," Forrester said..

What: Inaugural Walker County Ag Festival that will feature canning, baking, flowers, vegetables, youth poultry, rabbit, goat & lamb shows, quilting, needlework, inflatables, & music.

When: Saturday, Sept. 30, 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.

Where: Walker Co. Ag Center, adjacent the Civic Center on U.S. Highway 27 in Rock Spring

Cost: Free, except for passes to play in inflatables For more information, go to www.walkercochamber.com-Ag-Festival.


Hard times loom, Erlanger enforcing order Dispute now centers on repayment terms

Walker County property owners may see a 7 mill increase on bills being mailed along with annual tax bills next month,

Commissioner Shannon Whitfield, during his Sept. 14 public meeting, said this — nearly a 77 percent increase — is due to Erlanger hospital "moving forward" with a lawsuit against the county.

Erlanger sued to demand repayment of a 2011 loan made to The Hospital Authority that operated Hutcheson Medical Center — and guaranteed by the county — to keep the insolvent Fort Oglethorpe-based hospital open.

Former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell's administration unsuccessfully fought the federal lawsuit and the county has been ordered to pay Erlanger $8.7 million, plus interest and attorney fees,

"They wanted me to enter into a consent order for $180,000, which I did not feel was in the best interest of our county to do. They want to move forward with a jury trial where they can prove in court, where they are claiming that they have incurred a $180,000 in legal fees and costs to pursue the debt collection from Walker County," Whitfield said. "I refused to sign that agreement. I was looking for more of a total— global—settlement of the entire situation to offer them up a payment schedule and repayment. I have no desire

to fight or litigate with Erlanger. I feel like it's been proven in court that Walker County citizens owe the money. The federal courts made that clear multiple times,"

Whitfield said his offer to pay Erlanger $625,000 every 90 days for three years — a total of $7.5 million — was rejected within an hour of its being made. Instead, he said Erlanger demands minimum payments of $1 million every 90 days for 27 months.

The difference between the county's offer and the hospital's demand is about $1.5 million.

"We have tried to continue to have dialogue, but no indications that we are getting anywhere," Whitfield said. "So, I guess they have a desire to go back to court."

To reduce the amount owed in legal fees, Whitfield said the county is willing to take its chances before a jury.

Once the dispute about attorney fees is settled, the commissioner said Erlanger has promised to pursue enforcement of the $8.7 million summary judgment.

Whitfield said this would mean up to an additional 7 mill tax rate increase imposed on the property owners of Walker County.

Rather than call this a tax increase, something which would require redoing the budget and holding a fresh round of tax and budget hearings, Whitfield has proposed assessing a fee, the Public Health Facilities and Services District, rather than a tax.

While the names differ, the amount due Erlanger is little changed. And now the argument has shifted to terms.

Walker County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker reports that each mill levied countywide is expected to generate $1,225,812. That would mean 7 mills, collected at one time, would bring in slightly more than $8.58 million.

Rather than hit taxpayers' pocketbooks with a one-time charge, Whitfield has asked that repayment be spread over than a year. Doing so would allow the 7 percent being broken into smaller increments and have the debt paid off within three years rather than one.

"We are hopeful we can work out some type of payment schedule and/or show the courts that we're in good faith trying to move forward and sending them money starting at the first of the year once the tax revenue comes in and hopefully they will back off of that and see that we are going to pay it, so they don't raise your taxes by 7 mills next year," Whitfield said.

A resident attending the Sept. 14 meeting then asked what a 7 mills increase would mean to a three bedroom house priced at $100,000, to which Whitfield said around $266 more on a $100,000 clear market— asset—value.

"It would definitely put a hardship on our citizens—overall—because it would almost be doubling the property taxes that are being charged from the county," Whitfield said.

One individual attending the commissioner's meeting asked if former Commissioner Heiskell— given her role in the Hutcheson Medical Center/Erlanger Hospital situation—currently has a job within the county, to which Whitfield said, "no."

As the room became quiet, Whitfield said this is a quiet group, to which one citizen jokingly replied, "Because, you are getting into our pockets." Whitfield responded by saying, "The previous administration got into your pocket, I didn't."

Assistant editor Mike O'Neal contributed to this story.


An ongoing saga of taxpayer support for a local hospital

Editor's note: Walker County taxpayers are being asked to pay as much as a 7 mill lump sum, due this year, to Erlanger Health Systems to satisfy a court-ordered settlement. This article, published Nov. 8, 2014, details Walker County's use of tax revenue to support first Tri-County and then Hutcheson hospital over nearly six decades. At the time of publication, the Hospital Authority of Walker, Dade and Catoosa Counties was involved in a lawsuit with Erlanger Health System concerning repayment of loan guarantees made when Erlanger agreed to manage the hospital in Fort Oglethorpe.

Due to computer problems, Hutcheson hospital's financial report for September (2014) was unavailable for presentation during the monthly board meeting. And since the hospital's fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, those figures are needed to prepare the annual report. As soon as those September and annual financial reports are adopted, the Messenger will immediately post them online and put them in the following week's print edition. In the meantime, here are some financial figures dealing with the hospital's early years — and numbers don't lie.

Claims that tax revenue collected in Walker County today is being used to financially prop up Hutcheson Medical Center, though good for gossips and politicians trying to make hay, is fiction.

What is true is that local governments provided tremendous direct monetary support of the hospital during the last century, though not in the past decade and certainly not since a radical makeover of the hospital administration that occurred in the spring of 2011.

Hutcheson was founded as Tri-County Hospital in the early 1950s as a joint venture between Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties. Records show that in 1955 more than 10 percent of the county's general fund budget was earmarked for the hospital.

The tax levy for 1955 shows the school system collected 15 mills for countywide maintenance and 6 mills for bonds. The Lakeview and LaFayette school districts each collected an additional 4 mills. All other county government operations required a levy of 25 mills.

Those 25 mills funded a total operating budget of $264,005. Equal amounts of $28, 247 — 3 mills — each were earmarked for "expenses of court, sheriff, coroner, maintenance and support of prisoners," expenses of administration of government, for public welfare and for Tri-County Hospital.

Similar figures are found in the 1956 budget: Tri-County Hospital was allocated 4 mills of tax revenue, $39,761, which was the same amount earmarked for the road department.

That the hospital relied on taxpayer support is evidenced again and again in the county digest for budgets for the first decade of Tri-County's existence.

1957's total budget of $326,616 shows the hospital was allocated $30,583 — 9.36 percent — of property taxes raised that year for county government.

There was some variation from year to year: 3 mills went to the hospital in 1958, that amount increased to 4 mills annually from 1959 through 1962 then declined to 2 mills for 1963 and 1964.

Three mills of property tax revenue in 1965 and 1966 that were dedicated to TriCounty fell to 1.75 mills on the 1967 tax levy.

That 1967 allocation of $70,244 to TriCounty Hospital was about 15 percent of the county's overall budget of $441,536 for operating expenses.

Through 1969 the hospital received 1.75 mills annually of county property taxes.

Reports from 1970s show a high of 1.5 mills (in 1972) and a low of 0.88 mills (1977 and 1978) with a five-year stretch of 1 mill being dedicated to the hospital — all during a decade where the county's annual millage rate was between 8.5 and 11.5 mills. During that same time, the school's millage, collected in addition to the county government budget, varied from 13.75 to 23.25 mills annually.

In 1980 the county earmarked 0.898 mills to providing indigent care and an additional 1.101 mills to contract ambulance service from Hutcheson hospital.

Walker County's 2016 property tax rate was 24.469 mills for its unincorporated areas. Of that amount, 7.838 mills was collected for the county's general fund while more than double that amount — 16.631 mills — is collected to run Walker's school system.

In addition to taxation for funding its schools and general operations, state law allows the county to collect up to 7 mills annually to provide health care services to indigent residents and others entitled to hospital care.

Walker County millage rate history

unincorporated/incorporated

2017: 9.838/13.129

2016: 7.838/10.940

2015: 8.592/11.485

2014: 7.725/10.357

2013: 4.705/7.195

2012: 4.835/7.195

The Hutcheson Medical Center exited the ambulance business in 2008. Ambulance duties were assumed by Walker County Emergency Services, by Angel Emergency Medical Services in Catoosa County and by Lifeguard Ambulance Service in Dade County.

The recently adopted Walker County budget for 2015 shows no direct support of the hospital.

Following the hospital's near financial collapse in 2011, Walker and Catoosa taxpayers guaranteed lines of credit totaling about $20.5 million that the hospital used to support its day-to-day operations. Those guarantees allowed the hospital to secure loans/lines of credit at more favorable rates, something that is possible because creditors are willing to loan money to any entity that has the ability to repay loans with tax revenue.

Update: After a lawsuit that went on for several years in U.S. District Court, a federal judge ruled in Erlanger's favor and ordered Catoosa and Walker counties to make good on their guarantees.

Catoosa's legal wrangling with Erlanger hospital over repayment of $10 million, its share of the loan guarantee, ended in June 2016, when the county's five-member Board of Commissioners agreed to pay the Chattanooga-based hospital $6.25 million to settle the matter out of court. That payment was made from Catoosa's cash reserves.

Walker County, having no cash reserves, is faced with the prospect of either assessing taxpayers to raise the amount demanded by Erlanger, or to continue the matter before a jury.