Twister impacts Catoosa finances

Twister impacts Catoosa finances

May 25th, 2011 by Mike O'Neal in Catoosa

All Catoosa County residents share the pain of friends, family and neighbors who lost life, limb or property to the April 27 tornado.

They also will feel the shared financial pain of lost sales and property tax income from businesses and homes that were either temporarily or permanently destroyed.

While still in the review stage, Dale McCurdy, the county's chief appraiser, said the preliminary estimates were that $22 million in property damage occurred during the storm. That figure translates to about $9 million on the county tax digest, not an insignificant amount.

"It means about $50,000 of lost revenue to the county but an even greater amount, about $150,000, to the schools," he said.

Those with damaged or destroyed property, home owners or businesses, can expect some relief, according to McCurdy.

He said a cursory review of the county found about 200 had some damage with about 80 homes and more than 30 businesses destroyed.

MORE THAN PROPERTY TAXES BLOWN AWAY

It is agreed there will be a drop in the amount of tax dollars collected in the storm's aftermath, to what extent and for how long is unknown.

"We just won't know," Catoosa County Manager Mike Helton said.

While property damage and its related millage loss is more visible, lost revenue from sales taxes collected at businesses that are out of operation, either temporarily or permanently, is greater.

Citizens have repeatedly approved imposing optional sales taxes to pay for capital improvements (buildings roads, upgrading sewers, major maintenance and construction projects) for both the local government and schools.

Helton said the state refuses to supply anything other than a total amount of such taxes collected each month and there is no way to determine how much a particular business - or collection of businesses like those on tornado-damaged Alabama Highway - contribute to the total.

"That's why we cannot tell how much Costco sales have contributed," Helton said regarding a trend that had shown a steady increase in sales tax revenue. "Since sales taxes are provided in total, not business by business, it is not possible to project the tornado's impact at present except that it will be significant on both the county and the city."

While acknowledging there will be losses, Helton said it will be during the next several months - the same period departments start planning for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 - before a clear financial picture develops.

SCHOOLS FOCUSED ON NOW

Not only would a drop in revenue affect county and the city of Ringgold's budgets, it could severely impact public education in both the near and distant future.

For the school system, it means taking a wait-and-see attitude on some projects that would be funded by the recently extended education special purpose local option sales tax.

How much revenue will be lost is unknown at this time, according to Damon Raines, director of operations for Catoosa County Public Schools

"We will closely monitor the situation," he said following a recent school board meeting.

The school system is insured and its insurance company will foot the bill for repairs at the three schools in Ringgold that were most heavily damaged.

Repairs at the primary school are underway and the high school is expected to be ready to serve students when the new school year begins in August. The middle school sustained structural damages that may require more time to complete restoration.

Raines said that even as Ringgold recovery efforts get under way, already approved projects to improve the lighting and gymnasium at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School should begin within weeks.

Projects will be prioritized and implemented as the county's finances return to normal - or to a new normal.

LOSSES OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

But even though insurance will restore damaged buildings, the affected schools have suffered massive loss of uninsured materials.

Years of fundraising efforts by boosters of the Ringgold band and athletic programs were blown away in moments when the tornado tore through Tiger Country, according to school officials.

Musical instruments and scores were scattered while athletic training facilities were trashed as were teams' equipment and uniforms.

The question facing school officials, parents and students is not only what needs replacing but where to begin.

"Imagine everything you touch in your home," said Steve Tarvin, a trustee for the Frank Pierce Foundation. "Think, how would you go about replacing it?"

Tarvin said the foundation's decision to make a $50,000 donation to help rebuild the athletic and band programs was twofold.

"We felt this would touch the lives of the greatest number of kids," he said. "And athletics and bands lift the whole community's spirits."