Walker County Director of Economic Development Robert Wardlaw didn't mince words after hearing Commissioner Shannon Whitfield describe the current state of the county's finances at the June 13 commissioner's meeting, which detailed the refinancing of a $15.3 million bond issue from 2015.
Wardlaw said the debt refinancing was one of the most important "economic days that we had ever had, probably in the history of the county."
The discussion came as part of Whitfield's bimonthly meeting where Walker County's lone decision maker explained the benefits of the county refinancing the bond. The new $14.7 million bond issue will carry a shorter term and be at a lower interest rate — not to exceed 4.9% versus the original 7.5% — which will generate the expected savings, said Whitfield.
"We have restored the financial credibility of our county and we are going to save the taxpayers $2 [million] to $3 million," he said after the meeting. "We look at this (bond refinancing) as the real big turn for the county government after a lot of sacrifices. The proof is that we have outside bonding companies and credit rating companies tell us that we are an investment grade, quality risk."
Former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell issued $15.3 million in bonds in 2015, using county assets as collateral for the bonds, to provide cash needed to keep the county operating. The assets included the Civic Center, Agricultural Center, Mountain Cove Farms and vacant parcels of land at the Rock Spring and LaFayette industrial parks.
"A lot of people were asleep at the wheel when that happened," said Whitfield, who will serve as the lone elected official until Walker County transitions to a five-person commission in January 2021.
Whitfield said he inherited a balance sheet from 2016 that was negative $7.5 million when he took office in January 2017, after "a high percentage of taxes" had already been collected. He used tax anticipation notes for $8 million in 2017 and $1 million in 2018 to provide cash flow needed to meet the $1.1 million monthly payroll.
Prior to the Oct. 1 start of the 2018 budget year, Whitfield raised property taxes by 2 mills and restructured the fire fee. One mill equals $1.2 million in revenue, he explained.
Whitfield expects the county to have a $4 million surplus at the end of 2019.
To help the county reach solvency, he also enacted a three-year public health fee in 2017 to repay the county's debt to Erlanger Health System for its bailout of what was formerly Hutcheson Medical Center, and increased the tipping fee at the landfill in order to cover the costs of a facility that averaged losing $556,000 over the prior 16 years.
The commissioner ended the public health fee early, in late April 2019, and the landfill now breaks even.
"I've lived here 25 years and I've seen a lot of pain, but in the last two years there has been a lot of strides and growth," resident Greg Wood said following the meeting.
Whitfield said he hopes the new bond issue will be sold in 60 days. Walker County is using bond counsel and underwriters out of Atlanta.
Georgia law requires a bond validation hearing prior to a government bond issue, and Whitfield said that hearing before a superior court judge will be held in mid-July with the bonds being sold immediately thereafter.
"The turnaround has been huge, and it has been transparent," he said of the county's financial progress. "We were junk bonds when we got here, and we are in a much different place today."
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CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had misquoted Wardlaw in the second paragraph as saying "the greatest day in Walker County history." It was updated at 10:53 a.m. on Monday, June 24, 2019, to correct his quote.