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Bebe Heiskell

Bebe Heiskell says she's in the same boat as all Walker County residents.

"God bless ya. I hope you can pay your taxes," Walker County's sole commissioner said Thursday as she signed the document adopting a millage rate increase that will raise the tax on a property assessed at $100,000 by $120 a year. "I hope I can too."

Heiskell raised the millage rate to 7.725 mils after years of taking on debt to avoid the public scrutiny that accompanies any effort to raise taxes. Now facing a budget shortfall of millions and a dwindling tax digest, she told concerned citizens she was left with no choice.

"I'm a senior citizen of this county. This affects me as much as it affects you," she told the audience in a final public hearing Thursday. "I really regret raising taxes ... but I have to do it. I don't like it."

Heiskell drew criticism from Walker County residents during the meeting over her purchase and maintenance of Mountain Cove Farm and the financial battle over Hutcheson Medical Center. Though not listed in her reasons for the tax increase, Heiskell's handling of both issues was an example of poor money management, many residents said.

"I'm concerned for us. I feel as though (Walker County) has made some unbelievable decisions with the Cove and trying to prop up Hutcheson," resident Teresa Thomas said. "We don't have the money to support big government. Shame on us."

Others were simply more concerned with how they would find the extra money to pay their property tax.

"I'm a single grandmother with a minimum-wage job. How am I supposed to pay this?" asked Jeanie Barrett of Rossville. "I'm already paying state and school taxes, and I don't have a child in the school system. Tell me, how am I supposed to do it?"

Heiskell listened, interjecting only to defend her decisions and to offer words of understanding.

"When I took office in 2001, we were in a $6 million deficit and I didn't raise taxes. It took us six years to overcome," Heiskell said. "We are a poor county. And that's my downfall. I feel sorry for the poor people."

Toward the end of the meeting, resident Rick Wood stood to offer reluctant understanding and a warning to Heiskell about the position she has put the county in.

"I think in the nature of your post you suffer the wrath of the frustrated taxpayer," he said to Heiskell. "But the only place we can start to control taxes is right here at this podium."

Email Meghan Pittman at mpittman@timesfreepress.com.

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