Saying that “considering the fact that over the past four years Walker County has had to weather the worst recession in the last 80 years, just as you, your families, and your businesses, relatively speaking, the state of Walker County is good” the county heard from their top elected official on Tuesday.
The county’s sole commissioner, Bebe Heiskell, went on to tell a group from the Walker County Chamber of Commerce at their June meeting that Walker County has been working under a financial handicap "as long as I have been holding this office."
She said, “When I took office 12 and a half years ago, I learned we had a huge deficit in our general fund budget and no credit as a result of unpaid bills. It took us about four years to overcome this deficit, and we did it, without raising taxes.”
Commissioner Heiskell said, “I have been watching as our revenues have been dwindling since the middle of 2008, but over the last four years our responsibilities and expenses have increased through new state and federal mandates.”
She also told the audience that Walker County’s tax digest, which is the total value of property countywide, has decreased $81,481,453 since 2010. This has reduced the amount of money a mil will generate. The commissioner also said that the county has seen, and continues to see, reductions in state and federal funding. The county also suffers from reductions in the amount of property tax collected because of an aging population that are afforded waivers on school and property tax, as well as a reduction from conservation covenants that cut property owners’ taxes in half.
Commissioner Heiskell also said that until recently the state court was an entity that brought in about a million dollars a year and was a major contributor to the revenue stream. “We always expect to see justice done,” she said, “sometimes it is carried out in the form of fines, sometimes incarceration, and sometimes dismissal.” The state court frequently imposes fines for traffic violations and other misdemeanor offenses, but the records show that for the last half of 2011 and all of 2012 it brought in very little revenue. “Fortunately, revenues are beginning to recover under Judge Billy Mullinax,” she said.
Speaking about the recently defeated Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST), the commissioner said, “I believe because it was not generally understood, there was a statewide campaign against TSPLOST. It was defeated in nine of 12 regions in 2012 in a Georgia-wide vote.”
“This left most of our counties with no monies for road improvements. What the state provided with Local Assistance Road Program monies, TSPLOST was designed to replace. Now there is very little revenue from the state for paving, and what there is, we must come up with the first 30 percent in order to qualify.” She went on to say, "Without proper roads we can’t expect many other improvements."
The Walker County Special Local Options Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum will be held in November of this year. According to the commissioner, a former candidate for a public office who lost in the 2012 primary election has said there is a group of anti-SPLOST activists in each precinct of Walker County working very hard to defeat this referendum. The tax is a one-cent on the dollar tax and is normally used to replace funding from county property taxes. Catoosa County residents voted last year to continue their SPLOST program.
“If the Walker County SPLOST does not pass, we are out of luck with keeping our roads paved,” Commissioner Heiskell told the group of business leaders. “Paving money is capital improvement money, and no one can wave a magic wand and make it happen. Ours has always come from state funding and SPLOST. Property tax has never been levied for anything other than patching, mowing, ditching and building shoulders on county roads or city streets.”
Commissioner Heiskell went on to sum up her thoughts on SPLOST by saying, “If we don’t pass the SPLOST, those who think they have won something may have achieved their goal, but they will not have helped this community, but in fact, have done just the opposite.”
In a recent state meeting it was announced that Walker County has the lowest per capita cost of any of the 159 counties in the state of Georgia. “We have struggled to make this happen,” she said.
Saying that it takes a lot of money to provide a family with gas, groceries and the necessities of life, she said it also takes a lot of money to provide for county needs as well. She gave an example of how asphalt has tripled in cost since 2001.
Commissioner Heiskell also touched on the development of Mountain Cove Farms as a positive for the county. This area will be used for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of The Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 19–22.
The commissioner concluded her remarks by saying, “While my message has not been completely positive, our future can and will be if we in Walker County continue to do the right things to ensure our future. I urge you to vote for the success of Walker County. Vote for and support the SPLOST. I don’t believe we want an unfunded government that cannot provide adequate services to a county of almost 69,000 citizens who live in a 446-square-mile land mass with nearly 1,000 miles of roads. Support your county. It is yours. Help us retain the services you need and can be proud of.”