Taxing times at tax time

Commissioner Shannon Whitfield during one of five public hearings about the upcoming budget, gives a presentation outlining how a 0.14 percent annual "fee" could retire debts owed Erlanger hospital.

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.