Walker County Sole Commissioner Shannon Whitfield successfully repaid two Tax Anticipation Notes (TAN) before an end-of-year deadline, saving the county an estimated $12,194 in interest.
Walker County borrowed $4 million from the Bank of LaFayette in January 2017 and received a $4 million line of credit from First Volunteer Bank of LaFayette in June to fund the county's monthly operational expenses. The loans were necessary after the previous administration left Walker County more than $70 million in debt, with very little cash on hand and more than $3.5 million in past due bills on January 1.
Commissioner Whitfield pointed out the county actually borrowed less than originally estimated. "We projected we would need $8 million to meet our obligations for 2017. After restructuring some services to manage county government more efficiently, we only had to borrow $7.5 million," Whitfield said.
Walker County made a $1 million payment on the Bank of LaFayette TAN on Nov.13 and a $2 million dollar payment on Dec. 12. Whitfield hand delivered checks to the Bank of LaFayette and First Volunteer Bank of LaFayette on Dec. 22to pay off the remainder of both loans.
A $5 million TAN from an out-oftown bank obtained in 2016 by former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell cost the county $258,393 in fees and interest. Whitfield affirmed, "Walker County borrowed $7.5 million in 2017 from two local financial institutions, receiving lower fees and favorable interest rates that added up to $135,133. Banking local saved the county $123,260 compared to the previous year's TAN loan."
Whitfield anticipates another TAN won't be needed until summer 2018. "As we continue to make progress to return Walker County to solid financial footing, I hope to end the process of borrowing money for regular day to day operations by 2020."
Walker County has signed a threeyear agreement with CHI Memorial to be the county's health provider.
Commissioner Shannon Whitfield announced the agreement during his Dec. 28 commissioner's meeting.
The agreement will ensure health care for about 400 county employees and their families.
CHI Memorial will begin providing services for the county on Jan. 2, 2018.
Whitfield said the county has had the onsite clinic for a number of years. It was operating four-anda-half days per week.
Whitfield, during his Dec. 14 meeting, announced that the agreement between the county and provider Southern Clinic Solutions would end on Dec. 29. Whitfield then tabled the matter and did not name the new provider until the
Dec. 28 meeting.
The city of LaFayette in December voted to move from the current onsite clinic.
The county and the city had an intergovernmental agreement set years ago to help share the costs of providing coverage to their employees.
In the LaFayette meeting, Mayor Andy Arnold said the original clinic did a "great job" and served its purpose, but the benefits of change would be best for the city.
Whitfield, when he took office a year ago, said he was looking for ways to reduce costs and improve access to health care for county employees. One of his concerns involved getting the county out of dispensing prescribed medications onsite because it is a liability to the county, he said.
"We needed a more suitable facility. The facility here is not up to par ... like it should be. So being able to partner with Memorial Health Systems, they have been able to offer us two locations of service, one being here in LaFayette.
.. And also, they have a location in Chickamauga," Whitfield said.
City of LaFayette employees will also be able to use either the CHI-run clinic in LaFayette or the one in Chickamauga.
This agreement offers the county more hours of service, with five-and-a-half days per week. Whitfield said those hours might be expanded in the future.
Whitfield said the new agreement is expected to save the county about $40,000 per year.
"So, not only are we going to be able to provide a higher level of care and service in multiple locations and extended hours, we are going to be able to capture those synergies of reducing our cost by about $40,000," Whitfield said.
"We are very excited about this and feel like that this will be a great partnership for Walker County," Whitfield said.
According to a press release from the commissioner's office, the new agreement will provide covered employees access to a wellness coach, tobacco cessation resources and multiple clinic locations providing preventative and urgent medical care including pharmacy and laboratory services.
The county will work with CHI to offer a health risk assessment to employees by being able to "prevent things like diabetes or a heart attack, producing happier, healthier employees."
In 2018, the county plans to utilized the new wellness program to help its employees stop smoking.
"My goal has been to take our clinic experience for our team members to a higher level of care. CHI Memorial is the best partner for Walker County to help us achieve this goal," Whitfield said in the release.
"CHI Memorial Workplace Health is committed to delivering a comprehensive corporate health and wellness program with preventative and urgent care services, and health coaching for chronic conditions that helps employees improve their health and wellbeing so they can lead healthier, productive lives," said Andrew McGill, CHI Memorial senior vice president, strategy and business development.
Mike Anderson was an 18-year-old freshman at Texas State University when he was busted with less than a gram of weed. Police arrested him, took his mugshot, and he spent the night in jail.
The legal consequences for being caught with such a small amount of marijuana — just enough for a joint or two — were minimal, but expensive. Prosecutors offered to drop the charges if he attended a drug program and did community service, and he could later get the record of his arrest expunged for about $500, wiping the history of his arrest from public view.
"After I got it expunged I thought it was pretty much a done deal," he said of the order granted earlier this year.
But the next time he Googled his name, he realized the ordeal was far from over. His arrest photo was posted on Mugshots.com. The page was one of the top results for anyone who might be looking for him. And as Anderson applied for internships — a graduation requirement for mechanical engineering majors — recruiters who initially seemed interested would offer the spot to someone else.
"It wasn't right," said Anderson, a junior, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of drawing further attention to his mugshot.
"I called [Mugshots.com] on the phone, and they told me basically the only way I could get the mugshot to come down was to pay a certain fine. Proof of expunction wasn't valid."
At a time when personal information can end up online and rocket around the globe in seconds, the estimated 78 million Americans with criminal records are a rich target for websites that collect mugshots from police departments and sheriffs' offices across the country and typically charge hundreds or thousands of dollars to have the photos removed. Even people who are arrested but never charged have their photos on the sites.
Since their business practices came to light in 2013, the websites have drawn the ire of state lawmakers who criticize them as exploitative. Texas is one of 18 states with laws designed to help people like Anderson, cracking down on mugshot websites by banning them from charging removal fees, stemming the flow of mugshots from law enforcement agencies, or requiring that the postings be accurate.
But so far, the laws have been largely ineffective in providing relief to those whose photos are featured on the sites.
"They haven't worked," said Eumi Lee, a law professor at University of California-Hastings who has spent three years studying the effectiveness of mugshot laws for an upcoming legal review article to be published by Rutgers. "But they've had a bunch of unintended consequences."
Mugshot websites have ignored the laws or quickly figured out ways to work around them, Lee said. In places where people can no longer pay to have photos deleted, they often have no remedy to get them removed. And once law enforcement releases the photos, they have little control over where they end up.
Mugshots.com, one of the biggest purveyors, has entries for nearly 30 million people, including people in states that hoped to make it easier to have mugshots removed.
A Stateline review found evidence across the country of the laws' inadequacy:
• Georgia twice tried to get mugshots off websites, first blocking sites from charging arrestees who were never convicted to have their pictures removed, and then requiring affidavits from any entity requesting law enforcement copies of mugshots. Still, Mugshots.com claims to have 2.3 million records from Georgia on its site, including entries for those arrested after the law took effect.
• California enacted a law in 2014 barring mugshot companies from charging to remove photos. But even its sponsor
doesn't know how well it's working. Pressed recently by Stateline for evidence of the law's effectiveness, the office of state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat, found a still-operating site, Whogotarrested.org, requesting a fee to remove photos. He requested a probe by the state's attorney general.
• And in Illinois, where the law similarly bans fees to remove mugshots, Mugshots.com is being sued for charging arrestees.
One of the plaintiffs in the Illinois suit, Peter Gabiola, said he can't escape a criminal past — despite time served — because his face keeps popping up on Google searches. Gabiola said Mugshots.com told him it would cost $15,000 to have his information removed from the site. He contends he's repeatedly been fired shortly after starting new jobs, even when he disclosed his criminal past, because Mugshots.com incorrectly insists he is still on parole.
"I made my life hard enough making some of the decisions I made in the past as a knucklehead, so I don't need some worldwide company or whatever making it harder by publishing incorrect information," Gabiola said.
Sheryl Ring, Gabiola's attorney, said that's part of the company's business model — people who are already struggling because of a criminal record will be more likely to pay if the listing makes things look worse than they really are.
Despite the laws' dubious track records, states keep enacting them. This year Florida, New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota all enacted laws targeting mugshot websites.
To be sure, trying to rein in mugshot websites is a challenge. In most states, mugshots are a public record. The companies can digitally scrape the photos from law enforcement websites, uploading them to their own sites in just hours, or put in public information requests to get others. When they've been sued, the sites' attorneys have repeatedly argued their work is protected under the First Amendment.
Among those who defend putting mugshots online are newspaper publishers, whose sites often feature local mugshots in crime coverage.
David Ferrucci, an attorney for Mugshots.com, said people featured on the site are being harmed not by the website but rather by their own criminal history.
"If your claim is that the publication of public records has hurt your reputation, then you're complaining about the publishing of public records," Ferrucci said.
Most of the state mugshot laws include some sort of criminal component, typically making it a misdemeanor offense for not complying. But it's not clear that police have ever filed charges against a mugshot website. The onus falls almost entirely on the person whose photo is posted, and lawsuits are no small undertaking, particularly for those who cannot afford an attorney.
"It's just like anything else. It's against the law to murder somebody, but people get murdered every day," said Georgia state Rep. Roger Bruce, a Democrat who sponsored both of the laws Georgia enacted to address mugshot websites. "But now the law is on their side. They can get an attorney and go after whoever posted their mugshot."
A Stateline review of federal court dockets showed about 10 lawsuits in five states, many of which have come from people defending themselves in court. Several cases taken on by bigger law firms have stalled in court, complicated by an inability to get class certification or fears the firm would not ultimately see much money from the case, lawyers involved in the cases said.
Gabiola's suit in Illinois is one of the first using a state law that bars mugshot websites from charging people to remove their photo from the site. Among others upset at the website is Terrill Swift, who spent 15 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit and whose photo is still on Mugshots.com five years later.
"They should do the right thing and take our pictures off those websites," Swift told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year.
Both the lawyer for Mugshots.com and supporters of the law say it puts arrestees whose photos are on the site in a bit of a Catch-22 — they can no longer be charged to remove photos, but they don't have a legal avenue to get them removed from the site. So Mugshots.com can keep them up.
"Perhaps the cruel irony of the Illinois law is that people who previously were able to have the information removed can no longer do so," said Ferrucci, the Mugshots.com attorney.
Mugshots.com tried to get the case dismissed on First Amendment grounds, but a U.S. district judge denied the request. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, intervened in the case in favor of Gabiola, saying Mugshots.com was engaged in an "extortionate practice" not protected by the First Amendment.
Ring, Gabiola's attorney, says it's already clear that mere passage of the laws does little to change the companies' business practices.
"In terms of whether these statutes are effective, we're going to need to find out if courts will actually enforce them," Ring said.
If the suit gets class certified, the $1,000 in damages provided by state law could require Mugshots.com to pay out millions.
In Texas, Mugshots.com refused to take down Anderson's photo without a $300 payment, even though state law requires that mugshot sites jibe with the state's criminal records — and according to Texas, he doesn't have one.
Kelvin Bass, an aide to Democratic state Sen. Royce West, who helped craft the state's mugshot law, acknowledged it doesn't have a good enforcement mechanism. He'd like to amend the law to put more pressure on the attorney general or local law enforcement agencies to take action.
"This guy's a college student," Bass said. "Why should he have to sue to get someone to follow the law when he's already notified this business that they're in violation? It should be easier."
Kayleigh Lovvorn, a spokeswoman with the Texas Attorney General's Office, said the office has received 19 complaints against Mugshots.com, but the state has taken no legal action against the company.
Sponsors of mugshot laws in several states say they haven't kept a watchful eye on the laws' effects, but they've been contacted by people who say they've been helped by their passage. They say the laws aren't intended to shut down the websites, just to curb their extortive practices.
But they also say mugshot sites have found workarounds: Attempts to block payment are often ignored, and sites can still make money off ad revenue. Even when mugshots aren't released, the websites use old arrest photos or mugshots from when people are booked in prison. The private sector has tried to step in; Google tried to change its analytics so mugshot websites aren't among the first to surface in a name search, but the mugshot sites can game the new algorithms.
Lee, the professor studying mugshot laws, thinks the only way to stop improper use of the photos is to stop releasing them at all, even to the media, ceasing their designation as a public record.
"It completely undermines the efficacy of those efforts," she said of the laws.
Federal mugshots have largely not been available since 2016, when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Detroit Free Press, which wanted access to the photos. But even some who want to crack down on the sites are hesitant to go that far.
"Arrest information is always public, and I don't know if we want to prohibit that," said Hill, the state senator from California. "We start sounding like a totalitarian state where people are secretly arrested and no one knows about it. No one can react to it or take action."
Back in Texas, Anderson continues his search for the internship he will need to graduate.
"I'm a junior right now, and I have about a year left," he said, but "once a company searches my name, I just don't get the same attention I did before."
Chickamauga is not quite the small sleepy town of years past that locals liken to Mayberry.
There are now four — yes four — four-way traffic lights in this mini-metropolis of 3,101 souls (according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2016 estimate).
Chain franchises have opened restaurants: McDonalds, Huddle House, Hardees, Domino's, Subway, Pizza Hut — and a Wendy's is on the way. Advance Auto and O'Reilly's have replaced the long gone downtown Western Auto Store. Two Dollar General and a Fred's have filled a void left by general merchandise retailers. A new and busy Ace Hardware will soon have MediThrift Pharmacy as a neighbor. Grocery stores Food Lion and Chappell's (formerly Shop-Rite) serve the city and surrounding communities.
And while changes large and small seem to occur like clockwork, one thing remain constant and unique: residents pay no property taxes.
A new and improved edition of the venerable Gordon Lee Memorial High School will open soon. But its multimillion cost is paid for with school taxes and state money, not by the city government.
In fact, the first class to graduate from the new school may be the last group whose parents paid property taxes as it was in 2000 — 18 years ago — that the city council eliminated annual levies on property.
City Manager Micheal Haney said the city has an operating budget that projects about $1.5
million in revenue and expenditures of about $1.45 million.
The 2018 budget includes about $77,000 to "cover any unforeseen expenses" but that amount, if not needed, will be added to the city's reserve funds which are already enough to cover a year's expenses.
And where does the city get its money? From franchise fees paid by companies wanting to reach this market. By the sale of utilities, water and electric, as well as trash and garbage collection service.
The counties other cities collect taxes with varying millage rates (1/1000th valuation): Lookout Mountain's rate is 9.35 mills, Rossville's is 9.035 mills, Fort Oglethorpe (partly in Walker County but mostly in Catoosa) collects 6.632 mills and LaFayette has a millage rate of 2.82 mills.
Maintaining and operating those utilities, nearly 30 miles of roads, many more miles of power and water lines and about 20 buildings — including the Gordon Lee Mansion and Lee & Gordon's Mill — is an ongoing challenge, but one Chickamauga if proud of.
"Good leadership by the mayor and council, along with dedicated departmental staff makes it possible for us to thrive," Haney said.