The Walker County Debt Crisis

Thursday, September 10, 2015
On Sept. 15, there will be a hearing in Walker County Superior Court to discuss bonds that will be issued by the Walker County Development Authority. Part of the proceeds of the bonds will pay off a loan that Walker County obtained earlier in the year to pay off monies owed on a loan related to Hutcheson Medical Center. Part of the proceeds will also provide funding for an industrial park in Walker County where Audia Corporation has built a manufacturing facility.
The bonds issued are worth between $15.5 million and $17.5 million. The interest rate could be as low as 5 percent and as high as 7.5 percent, according to legal documents prepared for the hearing. The interest alone on this debt could be as much as $2,400 a day.
 
It's no secret that the county is strapped for cash but they must really be desperate to put up as collateral Mountain Cove Farms, the Walker County Civic Center and the Walker County Agricultural Center in order to obtain funding. It's important for the county to complete the industrial park so Audia can begin production. There have been major cost overruns at the industrial park because the county had to move dirt around the site because the dirt where the rail line was running was not good enough to build a rail line on. Also, the county had to change the size of the water pipes from 12 inches to 15 inches to accommodate Audia. In other words, the project has been managed poorly.
 
The current bond issue will provide the county some temporary financial relief, but I have no doubt that in early 2016, the commissioner will seek another tax anticipation loan (TAN) to hold the county over through part of next year. The biggest question to me is when will the county hit the borrowing wall and run out of money? The pending sale or closure of Hutcheson Medical Center is imminent. Walker County is on the line for at least another $10 million they probably owe Erlanger Medical Center, who loaned Hutcheson $20 million several years ago. This could add a considerable burden to Walker County taxpayers. Where does the financial insanity end?
 
Published reports indicate that even with the county in dire financial condition, the commissoner has plans already drawn up to build a hotel at Mountain Cove Farms. the same Mountain Cove Farms that is being hocked to borrow money and the same Mountain Cove Farms where a restaurant recently closed that lost over $800,000 last year. There is no doubt that taxes will steadily increase in the county over the next several years in order to service this debt. A debt being created by an un-elected board whose members are appointed by Heiskell. And even though the debt documents state that the Walker County Development Authority does not have taxation powers, in reality they do.
 
And reality is in short supply in the commissoner's office. In her world, Commissioner Heiskell thinks Walker County will be the next Gatlinburg. It won't. It's a reality that Walker County citizens would like to check out of, but due to the crushing debt accumulated by Commissioner Heiskell, we may never leave.

Mike Cameron


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