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Chickamauga's done it again!
For the 17th consecutive year, city's millage rate is zero

Property taxes are a thing of the past — so 20th century — for the city of Chickamauga.

In 2000, property taxes were eliminated for residents, and last week its city council voted to continue this millennium's norm and collect only school taxes in the coming year.

When presenting the proposed 0.0 millage rate to the council, City Manager Micheal Haney said residents have saved more than $6. 4 million over the past 16 years based on the 3.46 mills charged in 2000.

The operations budget for this city of slightly more than 3,100 is funded by revenue from its city-owned utilities and franchise fees.

The local government maintains more than 20 buildings, a water tower, pump stations, 29 miles of roads and hundreds of miles of utility lines — all without ad valorem taxes.

By way of comparison, Haney gave examples of millage rates levied by nearby municipalities.

• LaFayette: 2.82 mills

• Ringgold: 3.11 mills

• Fort Oglethorpe: 6.632 mills

• Rossville: 9:035 mills

• Lookout Mountain, Ga.: 9.35 mills

Haney also reminded those attending the Sept. 5 council meeting that Chickamauga provides garbage, brush and trash pickup without paying supplements from the general fund, while its water and sewerage rates are the region's lowest.

As for the rate it charges for electricity, the manager said Dalton is the only city in the state with a lower initial rate, though it is one that has usage increases that make Chickamaugans' overall bills less costly.

Residents are required to support the city's schools — Chickamauga Elementary, Gordon-Lee Middle and High schools — via property taxes. But even them, the rate of 14.25 mills is lower than most. Walker County schools set a millage rate of 16.62 mills and Catoosa County has a millage rate of 18.69.

The school tax was adjusted upward last year, as it was found the city must have a rate of at least 14 mills to qualify for state funds. This year's collection is expected to generate about $1.53 million, an amount that will be matched by about $1 million of state funds.

And even as this local government resists raising revenue through levies on property, it continues moving forward with long-term plans to improve infrastructure and quality of life for Chickamaugans. An example is the ongoing process of improving the city water and sewer service.

"It is starting to come together," Haney said of a water system plan that carries a price tag of about $2.6 million and has been in the works for nearly two years.

The city has had problems insuring sufficient volume and pressure throughout its customer base. Partly because of a mix of aging water mains and partly because growth, particularly commercial development along U.S. Highway 27.

Several years ago the city was hit by several near-catastrophic failures: lightning knocked out one the pump at one of the city's wells, a water main break in mid-winter disrupted delivery to a large number of utility customers and an undetected leak near the Food Lion shopping center led to the city purchasing — at great cost — water from the county water authority.

To remedy the root of those failures, the council contracted a consultant to help secure grant funding to fix the problem. The result is a plan that will provide a looped system, one where there are redundant means of delivery and that will assure steady water pressure.

Aside from the benefit to homeowners, these improvements are critical to maintain ISO ratings for fire protection that will allow retail and industrial growth.

Such plans don't come cheap, but by combining a number of grants the cost is bearable for a town of Chickamauga's size.

A CDBG (community development block grant) commitment of nearly $545,000 has been secured.

Several other grants have been applied for and officials are guardedly optimistic that they will be awarded. One Appalachian Regional Commission grants for $300,000 is in the works with the potential of gaining an additional $162,000 of ARC funds. An Economic Development Administration grant of $707,000 has been applied for. There is the possibility of gaining a Georgia Environmental Finance Authority in the amount of $700,000 (if approved, this GEFA grant would require 60 percent being repaid) and the city share of SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) receipts earmarks $143,000 for water improvement project.

All in all, cash has started to flow in and the water project is moving along — all with no new taxes.

With opioid crisis, a surge in hepatitis C

In an unrelenting opioid epidemic, hepatitis C is infecting tens of thousands of mostly young, white injection drug users, with the highest prevalence in the same Appalachian, Midwestern and New England states that are seeing the steepest overdose death rates.

Like the opioid epidemic that is driving it, the rate of new hepatitis C cases has spiked in the last five years. After declining for two decades, new hepatitis C cases shot to an estimated 34,000 in 2015, nearly triple the number in 2010, according to a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With better screening for the bloodborne disease and more treatment using costly but highly effective new drugs, hepatitis C could be eradicated, according to a new study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

But epidemiologists agree that without quelling the opioid epidemic, or ensuring that nearly all injection drug users have access to sterile needles, hepatitis C will continue to spread. It already affects 3.5 million Americans who, if not treated, could die of liver cirrhosis or cancer. At an average cost of $30,000 per person, the tab for treating everyone with the disease would exceed $100 billion.

"We have two public health problems that are related — it's called a syndemic — and we can't address one without addressing the other," said James Galbraith, an emergency room physician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.

To reduce new hepatitis C infections, he said, states need to provide clean syringes for injection drug users who otherwise have no other contact with the health care system than emergency departments and jails.

But advocates for syringe exchanges say the prospect of standing up enough clean needle programs in the nation's hardest hit communities to stem the spread of hepatitis C is daunting.

Unlike the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and previous drug epidemics, which were spawned and defeated in urban settings, this opioid epidemic is ensnaring people who live in far-flung small cities and rural communities with few public health resources and scant political will to provide sterile needles to illicit drug users.

Nevertheless, there is "more momentum towards establishing syringe programs now than at any time in the past 20 years," said Daniel Raymond, policy director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, which advocates for syringe exchanges.

A new wave of syringe exchange laws has cropped up, even in some Republican-led states that previously opposed them. Since 2015, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia have all enacted syringe exchange laws.

"But it's a bit of a race against the clock," Raymond said. "Can we stand up enough new programs in time to blunt

the rise in hepatitis C? I'm optimistic but under no illusions. There's a lot of work to do to build political will for this."

For states that have taken this step, the next hurdle will be getting local officials to agree to set them up, Raymond said. Kentucky and North Carolina have moved quickly to launch exchanges in several hard hit counties. But other states are still struggling with local opposition from people who say that providing free supplies to drug users only enables them to continue doing what they're doing.

A Quiet Disease

Compounding the problem is a lack of perceived urgency. Hepatitis C doesn't kill children or adults in the prime of life. Most people infected with the virus experience no symptoms and the serious liver damage it can cause doesn't show up for 20 to 40 years after someone is infected.

"HIV is a dreaded disease," said Brian Strom, who chaired the committee that wrote the National Academies of Sciences study. "Hepatitis isn't and it should be."

"It is ignored largely because of a perception that it is tied to drug use and not a threat to the general public," he said. "The irony is that now that people are starting to worry about drug users because they're entering the mainstream population, it's going to help hepatitis get the attention it deserves."

In Scott County, Indiana, it took an outbreak of HIV in 2015 to motivate then-Gov. Mike Pence to declare a public health emergency and allow a syringe exchange program to be established in the community.

Nearly three years before the outbreak, public health officials were seeing a sharp increase in hepatitis C, and hospitals were reporting increasing numbers of overdose cases, as well as endocarditis (heart infection) and skin abscesses, all signs of injection drug use.

Searching for answers, Indiana public health officials at the time sought advice from a small community in central New York that had quelled a hepatitis C outbreak by establishing a syringe exchange. But doing the same thing in Republican-led Indiana was a non-starter.

Primarily a response to the AIDS epidemic, syringe exchange programs were first established in the U.S. in the mid-1980s as largely underground operations, since most state laws prohibited them. A ban on federal funding of syringe exchanges wasn't lifted until last year. Today there are nearly 200 programs, clustered mainly in major coastal cities.

But to stanch the recent spread of hepatitis C, a new study funded by the CDC estimates the nation needs at least 2,200 more programs located in the mainly rural areas where young drug users are contracting the disease.

According to CDC data, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Tennessee and West Virginia have hepatitis C infection rates that are at least double the national average. And Alabama, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin have rates that are higher than the national average.

In addition to syringe exchanges, states need to adopt policies aimed at testing more people at risk for hepatitis C and treating more of those living with the virus, said John Ward, director of the CDC's viral hepatitis program.

More Testing

Hepatitis C primarily affects injection drug users and members of the baby boomer generation born between 1945 and 1965, when the viral disease is believed to have been transmitted through the health care system before infection control and other precautions were widely adopted.

Testing for the viral infection is spotty. Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Wyoming and the District of Columbia do not consistently report data on hepatitis C to the CDC. Nationwide, tests for the contagious disease are performed so infrequently that the CDC multiplies reported cases by a factor of 14 to estimate the real number of infections.

In a few major urban centers where injection drug use has been prevalent for decades, hospital emergency departments have expanded the scope of their hepatitis C testing.

Until the opioid epidemic started exploding in the Appalachian region of north Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital wasn't one of those places.

But in 2015, after droves of people started coming into the emergency department for treatment of drug overdoses, heart valve infections and skin lesions, Galbraith decided to stop asking people whether they were drug users. Instead, he directed his staff to simply tell patients they were going to run a hepatitis C test on their blood unless they objected. Only 15 percent opted out.

What Galbraith found was that 11 percent of baby boomers tested positive for hepatitis C and 7.4 percent of people born after 1965 tested positive, rates that were far above the national average.

Most surprising, Galbraith said, was that 14 percent of young white patients tested positive for hepatitis C — nearly 18 times the national average — while only 3 percent of young black patients tested positive.

He cautioned that the high rates he found in the emergency department do not represent the general population of the Birmingham area because patients who come to emergency departments for care are disproportionately poor and uninsured.

After mapping the residences of the 1,200 young patients who tested positive for hepatitis C in the last two years, Galbraith found that most lived in rural areas of two nearby counties where heavy injection drug use was suspected based on county overdose deaths and hospital admissions data.

In follow-up interviews, he found that the majority of patients who tested positive self-identified as past or present injection drug users, although he estimates that the real rate is closer to 90 percent.

Galbraith used the data to try to convince Alabama lawmakers to approve a bill that would create syringe exchanges in counties with the greatest risk of spreading hepatitis C. It was unanimously approved in the House, but failed to pass the state Senate before time ran out this year. He and other public health advocates intend to try again next year.

Stormy weather ready?
Update insurance before a natural disaster strikes

With Hurricane Irma on an uncertain course and gathering strength in the Atlantic, Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens is urging Georgians to prepare now for severe weather, including reviewing their property insurance.

Commissioner Hudgens recommends that property owners make copies of their insurance policies, obtain insurance company's phone number; inventory their personal belongings; and keep all of these documents with them should they be forced to leave their homes. Hudgens also reminds property owners and renters of the following tips:

• For personal safety, identify what storm shelter is available to you and prepare an evacuation plan.

• Make a plan for your pets. Not all emergency shelters will take pets. Check with your local veterinarian for help with a plan.

• Contact your insurance agent immediately if you have had damage to either your house or car; do not delay. Your agent should provide you with claims forms and arrange for an insurance adjuster to visit your property or look at your automobile.

• Remember in severe weather to drive

with caution. Inclement weather does not absolve you of liability should you have an automobile accident.

• A typical homeowner's policy does not cover damage from floodwaters. A separate policy must be purchased through the National Flood Insurance Program; contact your agent if you feel you need a flood policy. Remember, you do not have to live in a flood plain in order to qualify for coverage, but your community does have to participate in the program. Coverage usually goes into effect 30 days after the policy is purchased. Unlike a typical homeowner's policy, a mobile home policy usually includes flood coverage and does not have to be purchased separately.

• Secure your property. For example, if your roof was damaged or blown off, or a tree has pierced the roof, cover the affected area with a tarp or plywood to protect your property from further damage. Keep receipts of materials used for repairs; your insurance company should reimburse you for repair costs.

• If damage is so severe you have to leave, remove valuable items if there's nowhere in the home to lock them up.

• Remember, many insurance companies permit their claims representatives to write checks for additional living expenses to victims on the spot. Contact your agent for details.

If you have questions about your policy, or if you are experiencing difficulty reaching your company, call Commissioner Hudgens' Consumer Services Hotline at 800-656-2298. Phone lines are open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.