2010
07.15

America’s economy has entered a long period of decline, a recession so deep it’s brought comparison to the Great Depression of the 1920’s. We haven’t seen bread lines wrapped around the block (although The Care Mission is slammed each day it’s open) but many families – especially families in Walker County – have been hit especially hard by this situation. Things for many will only grow worse as BlueBird closes next month; another 350 jobs gone forever.

Government leaders from the White House down have stepped in to do whatever they can (or at least promise whatever they can) to ease the suffering of America’s families. Walker County’s sole commissioner has also chimed in, promising in a recent interview to do whatever necessary to help find new jobs and ease the suffering of BlueBird workers and other unemployed county residents.

I want the people of Walker County to know that I am committed to leaving no stone unturned when it comes to attracting new opportunities to support the livelihood of our county.

That quote, taken from the Messenger’s story about BlueBird closing, should have capitalized the word “county” and made it a proper name, because Heiskell didn’t mean the county residents, she meant the County itself, as in the Walker County Government. And Tuesday her plans to help the County were made evident with an announcement of impending property tax increases for county residents: “Residents should understand that any discussion of a property tax increase comes out of a growing necessity and not by choice .. I understand fully the difficulty that many residents are having trying to make ends meet these days.

..and now that chore is going to get a little harder. But not for her. Not for David Ashburn, not for Steve Wilson, not for Jeff Mullis who is paid handsomely by Walker County (and Dade, and Catoosa, and Chattooga) for his role as a leader of the useless Joint Development Authority. Heiskell defended her decision by saying county employees did not receive cost-of-living raises last year and will not receive them in 2010 either – but those employees (including herself and her office staff) have been given no pay cuts or benefit reductions, unlike the many county residents whose pay has been cut down to zero.

County employees have also seen no reduction in employee benefits. Bebe and others on the county payroll still enjoy free memberships to a Chickamauga gym (located near Heiskell’s home), a free health clinic in the commissioner’s office, and free county-funded repair of their personal vehicles. (Well that one might be for the commissioner only). Heiskell also has a brand new office, purchased by the county, that hasn’t been moved into or used yet.

Department budgets have already been cut, Road Department funding is less than half of what it was ten years ago under Buddy Chapman, and the county roads are beginning to show it. But this tax increase isn’t to fund road repairs, nor is it to benefit critical departments like Fire/Rescue, Walker County Schools (which set their own tax rate), or the Sheriff’s Department.

According to Heiskell, the increase is to pay for the 911 center because cell phones aren’t taxed like land lines used to be, reducing the funding available for crucial services like 911 dispatch. Bebe apparently doesn’t have a cell phone herself, or has one and doesn’t pay the bill (wonder who does..) otherwise she would have noticed that cell phones are taxed at the federal, state, AND county levels. As much revenue comes into the county coffers for cell phones as ever came from land line phones, and any risk to the future of 911 is a problem of mismanagement as much as it is of funding.

In a later report, Heiskell claimed the tax increase would be necessary to offset “an $800,000 sales tax deficit.” That claim, while questionable, actually makes sense – but not in the way she hopes it does.

Georgia has a blanket sales tax of 4% on everything except food, which is untaxed. Local counties have an option of applying three different 1% taxes on top of the state’s take. Those taxes are for schools, one to offset the homestead exemption on property taxes, and the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Walker County currently applies all three, bringing the tax on food to 3% and the tax on everything else up to 7%. The first tax goes directly to Walker County Schools and doesn’t impact the county’s operating budget. The second tax, the homestead exemption, goes into the general budget and is the primary issue she’s discussing. The third tax, SPLOST, goes into a special reserved fund and pays down bonds used (in theory) for special infrastructure projects, like road paving and rural water access.

A decrease in sales tax revenue would impact the homestead exemption, which allows older residents to pay a reduced rate on their property tax. That’s something the commissioner cannot change legally, and wouldn’t want to change politically since a majority of county voters are older and qualify for the exemption. So part of the property tax increase will cover that. But what hasn’t been addressed is what the sales tax decrease does to SPLOST.

SPLOST was renewed by Walker County voters in 2008 (despite our objections), authorizing the county to sell $24 million in SPLOST bonds. The amount raised was based on an estimate (guess) of $38 million SPLOST would bring in over the five year period. The money raised was then handed out to various agencies in the county, including city governments, so they could get construction projects done. Walker County spent SPLOST to buy property in Kensington, build a new community center in Villanow, construct a new fire hall on Old Mineral Springs Rd. that was completed in 2009 but won’t open until 2012, and other various and assorted projects. Other municipalities (including Ft. Oglethorpe) were given a share as well, and LaFayette spent its portion on the golf course, new softball fields, tacky Christmas lights, an airport expansion, and other projects deemed critical by the city council.

Funds raised by SPLOST are long since spent, but the bonds that generated that funding must still be paid off. While SPLOST money cannot go to the county’s general budget, the county’s general budget is on the hook for SPLOST bonds when the SPLOST tax itself isn’t enough to pay them off. That payoff comes to some $400,000 a month ($24 million divided by 60 months) before any interest or dividends are factored in. If the county’s general budget, money from property taxes and the homestead exemption sales tax, are now forced to cover part of the SPLOST bonds then it’s no wonder we have such a shortfall.

Commissioner Heiskell has called for public meetings to “discuss” (read:announce) the tax increases. Those meetings will be held in her office at 10 AM on Friday the 16th, 6 PM the same day, and again at 10 AM on July 23rd. The meetings weren’t announced until this Tuesday, which leaves little time for most working people to prepare to attend – but every person in Walker County, working or not, property owner or not, should make an effort to appear. The Commissioner’s office is small, so those wishing to attend are advised to arrive early before the space is filled with Chickamauga Mafia Yes-Men who support the commissioner’s every decision.

Those who attend should be prepared not just to listen, but to ask questions and speak up. Concerned citizens need to ask Heiskell where the money really goes, and demand audited financial statements from the county that explain what existing taxes have gone to. With a sole commissioner in charge of the county, Walker lacks accountability – accountability that can only exist when concerned citizens are willing to speak up, ask hard questions, and demand real answers from the commissioner.

This tax increase isn’t just an issue of personal hardship, but impacts every business and farm in the county. Businesses already stretched thin by the economic situation might be encouraged to pack up and leave, or close down entirely, by the increased tax rate. The county’s few remaining productive farms will also be challenged by this increase, forcing more farmers to divide their fields up into tracts for housing development that may never come. Closed businesses and farms lead to more jobs lost, deepening the economic problem county residents already find themselves in.

The government is meant to serve the people, to provide essential service like fire, police, and transportation infrastructure. When Walker County demands its citizens cough up more taxes during already-hard times in order to continue funding luxuries and useless projects, those citizens should in turn demand accountability and a change of leadership. We don’t HAVE to accept this or let anyone treat us this way.

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14 comments so far

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  1. While I don’t always agree with your viewpoint, LU, I must say that I will be spreading the word about your excellent blog. Unlike the small local newspapers of this area you are fortunate not to be tied to advertisers that could be offended by any particular editorial bent. They do a pretty good job from a neutral reporting stance, but that’s where they need intelligent voices like yours to attribute reasoned opinions for calling out the status quo. Keep up the good work.

  2. Wawatoosa:
    We’re not going to claim perfection, but as you’ve said we don’t claim neutrality either. The purpose for this blog, and the reason we remain anonymous, is to say what needs to be said without having to fear for lost jobs or hurt families. I understand the position the newspaper and radio station are in – they’re called to journalism, but they also have to support their families. This is a completely unfunded project done during down time.

    Even if we’re completely wrong on EVERYTHING (and I’d like to think we aren’t anywhere close to that), the existence of this blog provides some accountability and lets the people in charge know somebody’s watching them. You can’t just hide stuff or contradict yourself or hope people forget what you did last year, because we’re here to remind people of that.

    There will be a followup for this posting later today or tomorrow with the meeting results. Keep reading, thanks for your kind comments.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  3. We might be quite surprised at the quitrupling of Mrs. Heiskell’s personal net worth during her short tenure as our Tax Commissioner.

    Probably just goes along with the job…………….

  4. I’m told Bebe mentioned “the blog” in her big meeting. Our post was dismissed because we supposedly claim the county spent $38 million on Mountain Cove Farms. That claim isn’t made here – the county spent several million on that property along with a large chunk of funding from the state. The rest of the SPLOST money went to other projects, which we now get to pay for.

    If you can please try to attend tonight’s meeting. This isn’t done yet, not by a long shot.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  5. Research shows the county sold $24 million in SPLOST bonds on expected revenues of $38 million. We will correct this article to accurately reflect that amount.

    — LU

  6. Ok, I went to the meeting at Bebe’s office and ran my mouth, probably to na avail. However our biggest problem is withn the school board. I’ve trid in vain to find out where they hold the meetings and what time the monday meeting will take place. Any help will be greatly appreciated.

  7. The question is not how much money does Bebe want, but how does she expect the citizens of Walker County to pay higher taxes when they can’t even afford to feed their families. And the county employees might not get a cost of living raise, but they get a bonus each year at Christmas, don’t they? If the county needs more money, then get rid of some of the overhead at the county level. Also, get rid of some of the county vehicles and let employees drive their own cars like the rest of us do.

  8. Concerned: Bebe says they can’t skip paid holidays and vacations for county employees because “people who work for government don’t get paid very much.” They also still pay $38,000 a year for Key to Fitness Gym and sink $90 thousand into Jeff Mullis’ NWGAJDA office that accomplishes nothing. But they’ve cut all they can, there’s no other choice.

    A blog about the tax meetings will be posted before Friday.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  9. Vote her out!!!!

  10. Why is she getting paid by the State Department of Community Affairs?

    HEISKELL,BEBE A BOARD MEMBER Salary $840.00; travel $1,089.60 COMMUNITY AFFAIRS, DEPARTMENT 2009
    HEISKELL,BEBE A BOARD MEMBER Salary $1,155.00; travel $540.09 COMMUNITY AFFAIRS, DEPARTMENT 2008

  11. Well I just got back from Bebe’s tax meeting and I was in shock and dismay at the pure arrogance and contempt she had toward the working class residents of Walker County. Her selling points on this tax increase are nothing short of extortion on public fears and capitalizing her position by blaming the State of Georgia…with side dishes of look how good I’ve been and how lucky you are. Without so much as finding out about the details of someone needing to be hired to appraise million dollar properties, she actually was trying to give an additional $30,000.00 dollars away to the County Assessor who stated he didn’t need it.
    She had her mind made up to increase taxes prior to starting the meeting and could care less what the residents had to say. She brought in all her departmental heads to put on the old dog and pony show about whoa is me/we don’t have enough money…it was just sickening. When asked if she could reduce her own departmental costs by perhaps cutting something (like employee car/fuel, gym memberships, reduce wasteful spending) she quickly diverted to another subject without answering the question. One positive thing; she did say she was going to bring a thousand jobs to Walker County but of course she didn’t mention how or where these jobs were coming from.
    Bebe just doesn’t get it or just doesn’t care. She stated as another example of the need to increase taxes, the reduction in sales tax revenue…do you suppose that is because people don’t have the extra money to spend, but she’ll only take a monthly pizza or two away from you even though you don’t have the money to buy one in the first place. A couple of other excuses for raising taxes were; we have one of the lowest property taxes in the State and she hadn’t raised our taxes in three years…so those are reasons to increase it? She went on to state how the younger working families shoulder most of the tax burden but they don’t care nor notice because it’s rolled into their mortgage payments…guess what Bebe, we know and care!
    I feel a new Commissioner needs to be voted in at the next election but until then we need a full account of her expenditures, a detailed report itemizing every single thing this Commissioner spends our money on. I bet we could discover much more revenue by cutting her wasteful spending then ever could be gained by yet another property tax. Which by the way, I often wonder why the incorporated must pay almost double the mil rate as the unincorporated areas? If anything, bring up the mil rate on the unincorporated to equal the incorporated mil rate then she would have plenty of loot. Mark my words; by this time next year, the school system will jump on the tax bandwagon.

  12. Wow. She made the statement “younger working families shoulder most of the tax burden” and “they don’t care nor notice because it’s (taxes) rolled into their mortgage payments”. Maybe that’s how they do it north of Noble, but here on Chattanooga St…I have a mortgage monthly and I have a separate bill that comes just in time for Christmas for my property taxes. Let me tell you, I’ve spoke with Santa and he’s none to pleased. Here’s how it works around here. The bill comes in late December. My family has to let it set until we can save the funds to pay this tax. More times that not, we wait until sometime in March when my tax refund comes back from the federal and state government to pay the county property tax. I can’t even think of anything witty, stupid, or controversial to say. I use a tax refund only to pay another tax. If that’s not over taxation, I don’t know what is. It seems like my vote should count as 2 or 3 instead of just one. With taxation should come informed and intelligent representation. I would like to see the percent of families in Walker County that infact have their property tax rolled up with their mortgage. It’s Friday evening and I would love nothing more than to be at a minor league baseball game or at a local venue enjoying music. I have not neither in nearly 3 and half years. You may ask why, you may have just heard I took to become a hermit, or you may have even heard I took some other recreational activity. It’s none of those things. When one has to budget the tight income of the family for mortgage, food, and taxes, there leaves little to no money for the perks we all use to enjoy. I’m surprised we find the funds to mow the yard. I wonder if the county would come mow it when it gets chest high. I read something earlier about the road crew trimming trees. Why not with this increase in taxes have county workers mow yards for the people who can’t because of allergies or asthma? Novel idea.

    Yes her mind was made up before tonight’s meeting and it was maid up before last weeks meeting. I think only the second coming would have changed her mind and even then it would have been a coin flip.

    I’ll step off the soap box, so someone else can use it.

    Keep on Truckin’

  13. Looks line Ken Marks and Catoosa count are getting this right. Maybe “our” county and city governments should start looking at the way they have run things the last couple of decades…..funny how you don’t even need a road sign telling you that your in Rossville, or entering Walker from Catoosa…..just look around….its obvious

  14. Well, Shoot. Don’t seem like people understand how things work around here. If you’re already having trouble paying your taxes and utilities, the smartest thing for them to do is just penalize you by charging you more money.

    Makes perfect sense to me…………