published Friday, December 30th, 2011

Whitfield County approves budget and looks to raise property taxes

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BY THE NUMBERS


2011 —2012

Budget: 42.2 million—41.6 million

Projected revenue: 37.3 million—35.4 million

Source: Whitfield County

Whitfield County officials likely will need to raise property taxes and borrow money next year to make up a $6 million projected budget shortfall, officials say.

County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to pass a $41.6 million budget during a special called meeting. Projected revenues for 2012 are $35.4 million, down nearly $2 million from 2011.

The county has dipped into its reserve fund for the last three years to balance its budget, with that fund now at $8.6 million, more than $1 million below the state recommended 90-day reserve.

"There are a lot of unknowns out there, but next fall we will need to take a look at the millage rates and we may have to take out a tax anticipation note," County Chairman Mike Babb said.

Babb acknowledged the budget passed by commissioners is not ideal but said they had no choice based on declining property taxes and sales tax dollars that have remained nearly flat this year.

"It's not really what a citizen would consider a balanced budget," Babb said. "We hope it doesn't snow this year or have something like happened in Catoosa [County] with the tornadoes. We don't have any money for extra costs."

The 2012 budget is about half a million less than last year, with most departments seeing small cuts.

The public safety budget, including sheriff and fire departments, was largely unchanged at $17.8 million. Public safety is budgeted to receive $6.4 million and $6.1 million will go to the court system.

The largest increase in funding will go to the county's debt service, which is budgeted at $1.9 million, compared in $1.2 million in 2011 and $122,641 in 2009.

The final budget did restore some funding that had been cut in preliminary budgets, including funding to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center and the Dalton-Whitfield Library.

While the budget next year will be tight, County Manager Mark Gibson noted that some numbers are better than they might have been. Both property tax values and sales tax projections came in slightly higher than had initially been estimated, Gibson said.

The county also will receive $1.1 million in medical reimbursements and will not need to make a $1.5 million payment to its retirement fund, Gibson said.

"Our retirement fund is funded at higher levels and will allow us not to make that payment next year," Gibson said. "So our budget is better than it could have been."

Babb said the county is considering all of its options, including looking at any assets it can sell. The former health department located west of the Hamilton Medical Center is one of the buildings that have been considered, he said.

But even the selling of some buildings won't cover the entire gap.

"Some people keep telling us we need to cut more," Babb said. "Well, yeah, we can cut more, but the question is how far down do you go?

"You also have to look at the vision we have for the county. If people want to cut out the fire department and cut out recreation, they will need to have a different set of commissioners that just look at things based on numbers. We are elected to think about the future of the county and our vision for county."

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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