Commissioner Shannon Whitfield approves multiple tax hikes in Walker County

LaFAYETTE, Ga. - Walker County property taxes are going up this year. But wait, that's not all.

Commissioner Shannon Whitfield signed a tax rate increase Thursday night, boosting the county portion of property taxes by about 22 percent. And he passed a new, second property tax. And he increased building owners' public safety fees. And he petitioned for a new sales tax - but that's up to the voters.

Working through his first budget since taking office Jan. 1, Whitfield continually leveled blame on his predecessor, Bebe Heiskell. As he has done at the four other public hearings on the tax rate, he showed residents the county's net position: $7 million in the red. And he continued to call the problem "our inheritance."

"We've got to break that cycle, break that addiction," he said. "Get off the crack cocaine of government debt."

So how much will your bill increase? That's difficult to measure, with Whitfield's whirlwind of money-generating measures.

First, consider the property tax. He is raising the millage rate 20 percent in incorporated parts of the county and 25 percent in the unincorporated parts. (He also pointed out that his government's portion of property tax is still lower than that of the Department of Education.)

Overall, he is raising about $2.5 million more in property taxes.

Next, consider a new measure: An additional 0.14 percent property tax in the county, which is specifically set aside to pay off debt - namely, money owed to Erlanger Health System for a 2011 loan. Federal judges have ordered the county to pay the hospital $8.7 million, though Whitfield said the total amount due with interest is about $10 million.

He said this extra tax, also on the backs of homeowners, will bring in about $2.5 million more in revenue. It will run for three years, through the end of 2019.

Whitfield said he has tried to negotiate with Erlanger CEO Kevin Spiegel to lower the total debt. (Catoosa County faced a similar debt but negotiated to a $6.2 million payment.) But, Whitfield said, Spiegel will not budge.

"Pretty nice guy, until you start talking about the debt," Whitfield said. "He wants his money. He wants it now. But he's willing to work with us. He wants $1 million every 90 days."

But back to the common homeowner, and how those changes affect their payments. If you own a $100,000 house in the incorporated part of the county, the two property taxes will increase your bill this year by about $227.56. That is a 52 percent increase on the local portion of their property taxes.

If you own the same home in an unincorporated part of the county, the two taxes will increase your bill this year by about $220. That is a 70 percent increase.

"I'm out of time," Whitfield told the crowd Thursday. "I'm out of resources. I'm out of money. I know of no other options of what to do."

"Let's call it the Bebe tax," resident Tom McCallie shouted from his seat. "It's her fault."

"For a nickname," Whitfield said, "that's pretty good."

And then there is the public safety fee. In the past, the county has charged home and building owners a $130 flat fee. Now, the county will charge 10 cents per square foot on the building. In homes, Whitfield created a minimum cost of $90 and a maximum of $400.

For businesses, the minimum will be $400 and the maximum will be $3,000. For industrial plants, the minimum will be $1,500 and the maximum will be $15,000.

Calculating the specific cost for each person is difficult. But overall, the county will bring in an extra $75,000 from the fee this year. That is a 12.5 percent increase.

And then there is the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Whitfield will put the item on the Nov. 7 ballot, asking residents to approve the extra 1 percent cost at the cashier. He said the money will bring in an extra $3.75 million a year. Of that, the county keeps about $2.5 million, and the cities will keep the rest.

The money will go only to transportation projects. With a tax like that, governmental leaders usually publish a list of projects explaining exactly how they will spend the money. Whitfield has published no such list yet. But he says he will compile one before the vote.

"If you don't want to put burden on the property taxes," he said, "vote for the T-SPLOST."

"What guarantees do we have that you're going to spend the money the way you say you will?" asked Dean Kelley, the immediate past chair of the county's Republican Party.

"Show up to these meetings," Whitfield said. "Hold this administration accountable."

How exactly will Whitfield spend all the money, besides the debt to Erlanger? That is not yet determined. The county has until Oct. 1 to pass a budget.

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