published Thursday, August 21st, 2014

3-mill property tax hike eyed for Walker County

WALKER MILLAGE RATE

2009: 4.418

2010: 4.918

2011: 4.835

2012: 4.835

2013: 4.705

2014: 7.725 (proposed)

Source: Walker County, Ga., government

NORTHWEST GEORGIA MILLAGE RATES

Catoosa: 6.296

Chattooga: 15.620

Dade: 8.283

Fannin: 5.160

Gilmer: 7.144

Gordon: 9.800

Murray: 5.800

Walker: 4.705 (7.7 proposed for 2014)

Whitfield: 6.061

Source: Georgia Department of Revenue 2013 property tax rates

Walker County, Ga., Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell is proposing a 59-percent increase on county portion of property tax millage rates to generate money she says is needed to keep pace with increasing expenses and state requirements.

"We really have our backs against the wall," Heiskell told Walker residents in a video presentation posted this week on her Facebook page.

It's the first county property tax increase since 2010, and Walker's tax rate would still be among the lowest in the state, according to officials.

"That's not 59 percent of your total taxes, that's 59 percent of the 21 percent that Walker County receives from the total taxes collected," the commissioner said. "It'll be about a 14.7 percent increase overall on your bottom line on your tax bill."

A 3-mill hike on the county portion of property tax applied to a $100,000 home would be an increase of about $120 a year, officials said. Plans are in the works for several public meetings to gather input on the proposal before the increase becomes a done deal.

The proposal barely raised eyebrows for two local residents.

Patty Rooks, a Flintstone resident for 24 years, said she's not surprised the county needs more money, and she largely blames cutbacks in federal money going to states.

"It takes money to run a government," said Rooks, who with her husband, Berwyn, owns Native Log Home Builders. "We need roads, bridges, parks, libraries and schools and all those things need to be funded."

Rock Spring resident James McConthy also wasn't shocked.

"I totally understand it," said McConthy, who owns Mac's Small Engine Repair in the rural community where he has lived for 15 years. "We're going to have to go up on labor rate. Everything is going up."

Rising expenses and declining sales tax collections are at the heart of the increase, Heiskell said.

"We have gone from 250 to almost 500 employees in the last 14 years, our gasoline has gone up and our paving has gone up about 300 percent in that length of time," she said. "Most everything has increased accordingly."

Additional negative financial hits came from a $3 million decline in tax collections -- from $21 million last year to $18 million this year -- declining property values and a $500,000 loss of sales tax revenues through negotiations to even up distribution among cities, she said.

Walker County Economic Development director Larry Brooks said the increase "seems like a big jump, but ours is the lowest in the state right now."

With the increase, "we will still be one of the lowest in the state," Brooks said. "The average is somewhere around 12 mills, and we're way below that."

The tax hike wasn't discussed over the past couple of weeks because of hopes for a deal to sell county-owned property at Mountain Cove Farms, Heiskell said. But that deal faded.

"If that had happened, we would have been able to reduce the amount of the millage that we were going to levy," she said. "It grieves me greatly to do it. I've tried my best for 14 years not to do this, but we just have no choice now."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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