Bebe Heiskell claims Walker County's money problems date to previous administration

Bebe Heiskell claims Walker County's money problems date to previous administration

April 24th, 2016 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Bebe Heiskell

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell thought back Friday to her first days in office.

There she was, in January 2001, looking through the local government's finances. She noticed the previous administration missed some payments. Then, she said, representatives from the city of LaFayette came in to talk about the county's bills.

Turns out, Heiskell said, Walker County hadn't paid LaFayette for utilities for the final three months under the previous commissioner, Buddy Chapman.

"They came in," Heiskell recalled of the LaFayette employees, "and said, 'We're going to cut the power off. We're going to cut the water off.'"

Heiskell said she scrambled to pay the late bill, another example of the financial mess she inherited from Chapman.

On Friday, the Times Free Press contacted LaFayette and asked whether the county was behind on payments from 1995, the year before Chapman took office, through 2000.

"There were no late charges on any of the county's bills," said Brenda Snyder, LaFayette's city clerk. "They were all paid on time."

But Heiskell has stuck to her story. She told it during an appearance on UCTV in April 2015. She told it to the Walker County Messenger last month ("accusations which have never been refuted," the Messenger noted).

And she told it again Wednesday on her UCTV call-in show.

"They were ready to cut off our power," she said.

Now Heiskell is saying Chapman has endorsed Shannon Whitfield for Walker County Commissioner out of spite.

"He ran and beat me [in 1996]," she said. "And then I ran and beat him. It's just one of those things that happened. It'll never end."

Whitfield and Mike Peardon are running for the Republican nomination in the May 24 primary. Heiskell, who has been elected to four terms as a Republican, is running in the November general election as an independent.

Chapman said he has endorsed Whitfield, the CFO of his family's Whitfield Oil Co., because he thinks Whitfield has a strong grasp on finances that he thinks can help the county climb out of debt.

Said Chapman: "I'm not running for office. I don't know why [the attention] is still on me."

Heiskell said she attacked Chapman's time in office because she heard he was claiming credit he didn't earn. She heard Chapman was telling people he left the county with no long-term debt.

In fact, Walker County's 2000 audit shows the local government held about $13.2 million in long-term debt.

"Maybe he didn't remember," Heiskell said. "Or maybe he didn't look at his own finances. I don't know."

Chapman denies ever making that claim. Almost all local governments have some debt, he said. When he took office, the county needed to pay for 15 firetrucks purchased by the previous administration. The local Division of Family and Children Services building was under construction, and so was the county's civic center.

But, he said, the debt wasn't out of hand like it is now. According to the 2015 audit, Walker County owes $39 million in long-term debt.

Heiskell said that figure is blown out of proportion. First, about $26 million is in the form of a bond to be repaid from the special purpose local option sales tax voters approved in 2013.

The county issued the bonds to build the industrial park in the Noble community. The industrial park helped bring in plastics manufacturer Audia International, which Heiskell said now employs about 50 people at $17-$20 per hour.

"It took a lot of work to get them," she said. "But they pay a lot of money."

Not counting that $26 million bond, she said, her debt looks similar to what the county owed under Chapman. And when you take out the $3.3 million liability for pension payments, something local governments didn't have to include in their audits until recently, the figures between the two administrations line up even more.

Except there are other debts Heiskell is not including. Last fall, the county's development authority issued a $15 million bond — partly to cover extra costs for the industrial park, partly to cover a debt that was due in 2015. Heiskell said that $15 million obligation will show up under long-term debt in the next audit.

Also, the county doesn't list its $8.5 million potential payment to Erlanger for money loaned to Hutcheson Medical Center as long-term debt. Heiskell said it isn't being treated like a debt right now because a lawsuit is pending on the issue.

But Chapman said the nitty-gritty on these arguments doesn't even matter. He left office 16 years ago, and he doesn't understand why his name keeps coming up.

"I get so sick and tired of hearing her blaming someone else for the problems that the county has," he said. "We had problems when I got in there. We had all kind of problems. We just tackled them one at a time. You can blame your previous administration for a couple of years. Then it's your own little red wagon."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.


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