Walker County taxpayers will dig deeper into purses and wallets to pay for county services and operations in the upcoming fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Faced with debts of roughly $70 million and projections that expenses would exceed revenue by nearly $ 8 million in the coming year, Commissioner Shannon Whitfield has set property tax rates that are 2 mills higher than currently in force.
In addition, the annual fire service fee will change from a flat rate of $130 per parcel of property to billings based on 10 cents per square footage of habitable dwellings, with a maximum charge of $400 and a minimum of $90. This shift in funding will require emergency services — fire and medical — to operate solely with revenue from this fee. In years past, fire and emergency services had access to all the county's general fund.
Customers of Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority saw an increase in utility bills earlier this year, and voters are being asked in November to approve a 1 percent special sales tax to pay for paving and improving county roads.
But an overall property tax hike and, for many, a higher bill for emergency service protection is not all that individuals and commercial property owners can expect within the next 30 days.
In order to pay a court-ordered judgment of nearly $10 million to Chattanooga-based Erlanger hospital, Whitfield on Thursday, Aug. 24, issued the following statement:
"Walker County Sole Commissioner Shannon Whitfield called for the formation of a special district to generate funds to pay down the county's debt owed to Erlanger Health System. Whitfield created and established the Walker County Public Health Facilities and Services District during
his regular meeting Thursday night, Aug. 24.
"A judge recently ordered Walker County to pay Erlanger $8.7 million plus interest and attorney's fees to cover its portion of a 2011 loan to keep Hutcheson Medical Center open.
"Whitfield said, 'This special district will generate at least $2.5 million a year to pay down our debt to Erlanger. I've asked their management team to remember it's the people of Walker County who are ultimately paying the price for the mistakes of the past. As we continue to work with Erlanger on a payment plan, my hope is they will show some compassion to our citizens, who are also their patients.'
"The special district allows for a special assessment to be charged on each parcel of property, beginning Oct. 1, 2017. The annual fee will be 0.14 percent of the fair market value, up to a maximum of $1,000. The special assessment on a home with a market value of $75,000 would be $105. Property valued at $200,000 will be charged a $280 fee.
"The Walker County Public Health Facilities and Services District will terminate in three years."
Retail sales in Walker County have had and continue to have several voter-approved, self-imposed taxes: LOST (local option sales tax) for general operations, SPLOST (special purpose local sales tax) for a definite list of capital projects and ESPLOST (education special purpose local option sales tax) that funds construction and major renovations of schools.
Whitfield's budget for the upcoming fiscal year is still being tweaked but is due for adoption and presentation to the state before Oct. 1.
Sometimes great things come in tiny packets.
That was perhaps the case about three weeks ago when a brief news release announced that Chattanooga-based CHI Memorial had signed an agreement to manage Cornerstone Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe.
"They recognized us as a premier provider," Larry Schumacher, CEO of CHI Memorial and senior VP of operations CHI Southeast Division said when the contract was announced. "We have been asked to bring life to this hospital."
Schumacher said revitalization of the former Hutcheson hospital will be a collaborative process with Cornerstone and its parent company, ValorBridge. And while it might be the first such partnership for the CHI Memorial, this is not unique to the overall Catholic Health Initiative's national health care system.
"We have many management arrangements with smaller hospitals around the country," he said. "When there is a need, when there is a gap in services, we try to become involved to either close the gap or improve the health care in a region."
Management of the North Georgia hospital is not CHI Memorial's first foray into areas once served by Hutcheson Medical Center.
"Since Hutcheson transitioned we have brought many of the prior HMC ambulatory care facilities into our group," Schumacher said.
The Chattanooga-based hospital has assumed operations at former Hutcheson clinical facilities in Trenton, Chickamauga, LaFayette and the former Hutcheson on the Parkway facility in Ringgold.
Those clinics were not part of the federal bankruptcy court-ordered sale of Hutcheson assets, the sale that had ValorBridge purchase the Fort Oglethorpe hospital in the summer of 2016. ValorBridge's purchase began after ApolloMD, one of its branches that provided emergency room staffing at Hutcheson, entered into a management agreement to keep Hutcheson's emergency room open when that bankrupt hospital closed. Cornerstone Medical Center was formed as the first bricks-and-mortar facility owned by ApolloMD.
Jessica Long, who has been Cornerstone's president and CEO since day one, will continue in that post though now as an employee of CHI Memorial.
"I'm really proud of what we've accomplished as Cornerstone," Long said following the announcement."
Long said the management agreement with the one of the area's largest hospitals and with one of the nation's largest hospital networks — CHI, based in Colorado, has $23 billion in assets, annual operating revenues of $15.9 billion and about 90,000 employees (including roughly 4,300 physicians and advance practice clinicians — should be a boon to Northwest Georgia.
"This is another way to explore how we can best achieve the goals of ValorBridge to assure health care was provided in this community," she said. "This continues that mission. It is an evolutionary process."
Long said that "from the outside looking in" it is hard to realize how hard it has been to bring the hospital back to life. Entering into a management agreement can accelerate that process.
"This allows us the opportunity to deepen the synergy between CHI Memorial and Cornerstone," she said.
Both hospitals in this new partnership have served the tri-state region for more than three decades: Memorial opened its doors in January 1952 and Cornerstone was founded as Tri-County Hospital the following year.
Memorial was operated by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth until joining Catholic Health Initiatives in 1997.
Tri-County's name was changed to Hutcheson Medical Center in 1985, something that continued until, facing financial collapse, it became Erlanger at Hutcheson in November 2011. After a few years, the hospital's board terminated its management agreement with Erlanger Medical Center, reverted to the Hutcheson name and sought bankruptcy protection.
Cornerstone's parent company, ValorBridge, acquired the Fort Oglethorpe campus in December 2015, completing its purchase in June 2016. Since the acquisition, Cornerstone has maintained an ER and a small number of hospital beds that are primarily used by patients from nearby Parkside nursing home.
What additional services Memorial's management deal will offer — and how soon — is unknown at present.
"We have a lot still to determine as to what we can and should do," Schumacher said. "We have been meeting the acute care needs at the Glenwood hospital — people migrated to Memorial — and this will create a chance to offer providers based on need and volume."
Part of the process now underway is assessing what is needed locally. The result might be similar in some ways to how CHI Memorial operates the former North Park Hospital and has offices for many of its specialists at that Hixson facility's adjacent medical office complex.
Schumacher said people are welcoming CHI Memorial's physicians and services and that he sees the hospital's role as a "vibrant ministry" that is part of an overall community.
"We want to meet the health care needs of the region," he said. "We intend to provide care and services close to patients' homes."
He said Memorial's cardiologists already are active at the former Hutcheson on the Parkway and a pediatric services will be brought to that area this fall. And all will work in concert with all CHI Memorial facilities and now with Cornerstone.
"This hospital is a special place to this community," Long said. "We intend for it to remain so for years and years to come."
The Salvation Army of Chattanooga has been called upon to help serve in the relief efforts of Hurricane Harvey. The Chattanooga Salvation Army is part of the Kentucky-Tennessee Division, which is sending 6 mobile kitchen units capable of feeding up to 1500 people a day from each unit. Division wide, The Salvation Army will be sending 15 Salvation Army officers as well.
Memphis will be the staging ground for all officers and mobile kitchen units from the Kentucky/Tennessee Division. Chattanooga Officers will roll out this evening to meet the rest of the Divisional Officers and units in Memphis where they will all roll out on Tuesday. This will be the first wave of deployments.
"We need help from our community to support the relief efforts. First and foremost we need folks to pray. The next best way to support us is to give financially," states Major Robert Lyle, Chattanooga Salvation Army Area Commander who is one of the local officers being deployed.
Donations can be made online to helpsalvationarmy.org, by phone to 1-800-SAL-ARMY, by mail to The Salvation Army PO BOX 1959 Atlanta, GA 30301. Please designate 'Hurricane Harvey' on all checks. To receive a donation link via text please text STORM to 51555.