Chattooga County eyes 27 percent property tax hike, led by inmate cost [photos]

Chattooga County eyes 27 percent property tax hike, led by inmate cost [photos]

August 8th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Chattooga County resident Adam Baggett makes a point during the comment segment of the meeting. Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters held a hearing to announce a property tax increase and ask for citizen's input on August 7, 2017 at the Chattooga County Civic Center in Summerville.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Chattooga County eyes 27 percent property tax hike, led by inmate cost

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SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — Jail expenses are driving a 27 percent property tax increase in Chattooga County, but the added expenses should not be a surprise, based on the jail's typical population.

During a public meeting Monday night, Commissioner Jason Winters said he needed to add $650,000 more to the sheriff's office budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in January. Residents will see the hit this fall, when their property tax bills reach their mailboxes.

Overall, Winters expects an extra $1.4 million in property tax revenues this year. The expense for the jail — the biggest addition to the budget — is not the result of a dramatic change in Chattooga County. Instead, Winters said, he is simply budgeting more accurately.

For example, in 2016, he set aside $3 million for the sheriff's office. But that figure was about $400,000 short of the department's average expenses over the previous five years. And indeed, expenses exceeded the budget in 2016 — by about $650,000.

This year, Winters has had to take out two loans worth a total of $4 million to pay county expenses. On Monday night, he told residents that he would like to see jail expenses decrease. But the county is under a federal consent order from the 1980s, telling the sheriff's office it cannot hold more than 47 inmates in the jail. Last week, the county was responsible for 120 inmates.

Of those, 47 were staying at the Floyd County Jail. Another 25 were at the Dade County Jail, and one inmate was in the hospital. Chattooga County has to pay the other municipalities to host those inmates.

Winters told the audience he wished the sheriff's office could keep more inmates under house arrest, wearing ankle monitors. But Sheriff Mark Schrader said a decision like that rests with a judge, not him. And besides, he said, some of the inmates probably would not qualify for such treatment.

Of the jail's 120 inmates last week, 57 inmates were behind bars for violating probation. Another nine failed to appear to previous court hearings.

"I'm not criticizing the sheriff," Winters said after the meeting. "I'm not. He's doing what he can, and I recognize that."

The cost of the jail was the subject of a debate last year between Winters and his challenger, Jimmy Holbrook. Holbrook argued the commissioner needed to budget for future jail construction to house more inmates.

Dade County has a population of 16,400, about 9,000 fewer people than Chattooga County. And yet, Dade County's jail is about twice as large as Chattooga County's. Last year Winters said funding a new jail is not realistic for the county, that there is no immediate demand.

"There's no need to rush into this," he said last September. "There is no fire."

During Monday's meeting, resident Brandon McDaniel advocated for privatizing the county's jail.

"If your house is leaking water, you've got to shut the water off," he said. " You can reduce the county budget by $3.4 million by allowing a private jail, by allowing a private corporation like [CoreCivic] to come in, build a private jail, hire private guards."

Allan Baggett argued the county should go further than that — it should privatize more arms of the current local government. Lorraine Roberts, on the other hand, said privatizing the jail would be a mistake. Residents won't have proper oversight.

In Tennessee, Hamilton County contracts with Silverdale Detention Facilities, a CoreCivic operation, to house some inmates. But after Monday's meeting, Schrader said he was not sure of any Georgia counties that contract with private companies for jails. He is against the idea.

"The people lose control [of the jail's operation]," he said.

The next most significant addition in the county's budget is $250,000 to upgrade software at the 911 center. Winters said the center shut down temporarily earlier this year, meaning 911 calls weren't going through to it. He said that was because the software is outdated: It struggles to connect with Windstream accounts, as well as cellphone providers like AT&T and Verizon.

Long term, Winters thinks the 911 centers in Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties could create a regional system to save money.

Winters is also budgeting an extra $210,000 for roads and bridges this year. He wants to add two red lights on U.S. Highway 27, at the intersections with Mountain View Road and Gore-Subligna Road. In addition, the county is building bridges in Lyerly and the Gore area.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6486 or tjett@timesfree press.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.