Elected officials question if Walker County budget is legal

Elected officials question if Walker County budget is legal

October 6th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitefield, right, speaks to citizens gathered at the Walker County/LaFayette Public Library while Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Blake Hodge looks on. Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield held a public hearing on a proposed tax increase at the Walker County/LaFayette Public Library on Aug. 17, 2017.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

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LaFAYETTE, Ga. — Before Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield presented his first budget Thursday night, the clerk of court requested a moment to hold forth.

"Commissioner Whitfield?" Carter Brown said.

"Yes sir?"

"Before you move forward tonight, there is a matter I need to address with you briefly," Brown said.

"Sure," Whitfield said. "Go ahead."

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"On behalf of myself, the other constitutional officers, other county officials, respectfully, respectfully, I need to inform you that we object to this budget," Brown said. "And that we bring into question the legality of the process you're following to adopt this budget. That being said, I have some other matters I need to attend to, so I'm going to bid y'all a good evening."

"OK," Whitfield said.

And with that, Brown exited the administrative building on South Duke Street, leaving Whitfield with an audience of taxpayers, county employees and other elected officials. In the months leading up to Thursday's budget reveal, Brown had asked for about $697,000. Whitfield gave him $566,000.

Brown did not return a call asking what, specifically, he thought was illegal about the budget. After the meeting, Whitfield said he wasn't sure what Brown was talking about.

"That surprised me," Whitfield said. " I'm sure I'll be hearing from him."

In addition to Brown, there are three other constitutionally mandated officials in Walker County: Probate Court Judge Christy Anderson, Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker and Sheriff Steve Wilson. After Thursday's meeting, Anderson and Wilson both said that Brown accurately represented them, while Walker declined to comment.

Wilson and Anderson did not say what was illegal about the budget process. But Georgia law mandates that constitutional officers receive enough funding to perform a list of services.

Walker received about $1 million in this year's budget, 18.5 percent short of what she requested. Anderson got about $265,000, 15.7 percent short of her target. Wilson was unhappy that Whitfield had slashed his request to purchase new patrol cars. Some of the current vehicles have almost hit 200,000 miles.

"I am concerned about that," he said after the meeting. "The commissioner told me in January [2018] that we would re-evaluate that request. I understand things are tight. And I will go back to him in January like he asked and see if we can do something."

The sheriff was not sure about all the details of his approved budget, as several parts of their funding are broken into several areas. Wilson did not receive a full budget until after the meeting, which brought up another issue.

According to Georgia law, a proposed budget has to be submitted to the county's governing authority by a certain date. Walker County Spokesman Joe Legge said Thursday night he's not sure what the specific date would be in this county.

The state law also says the county must hold a public hearing seven days before implementing the budget, allowing residents and county employees to offer their 2 cents. In this case, Legge said the budget goes into effect this morning, less than 12 hours after the hearing.

"The numbers are the numbers," he said. "They're not going to change at this point, whether it gets put off for seven days because of technicality."

During the meeting, Whitfield said he had been grinding the last several weeks to put together a detailed, line-item budget. His predecessor, Bebe Heiskell, used to submit budgets that only said what each department would receive overall. She did not explain how, exactly, the money was going to be spent. Likewise, Whitfield said he reviewed the past finances and realized Heiskell budgeted funds for departments that would sometimes barely cover the cost of employee salaries — a dream plan that never panned out.

Whitfield promised during last year's campaign that the county's financing would be more transparent when he took office in January. As a result, he worked until midnight several nights this week to finish the document. County employees were still working Thursday afternoon and did not release the budget until 50 minutes before the scheduled meeting.

Legge said some departments failed to submit budgets, even though Whitfield began requesting them in late July. That only added to the mad rush at the deadline.

Overall, the budget calls for about $1 million more in spending than Heiskell used in 2016, her last full year in office. However, most departments aren't seeing this boost. Whitfield is budgeting $4.5 million in debt payments — about $4.1 million more than the average debt payment from 2013-16.

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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