Heiskell calls for improved economy in Walker County

Heiskell calls for improved economy in Walker County

March 23rd, 2016 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell speaks during the Walker County Chamber of Commerce luncheon being held at the LaFayette Municipal Golf Course Clubhouse on Tuesday.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Free and reduced lunches

Catoosa County: 49.7 percent

Chattooga County: 76.9 percent

Dade County: 58.6 percent

Walker County: 72.1 percent

Whitfield County: 71.6 percent

Source: Georgia Department of Education, October 2015

Sales tax revenue

Catoosa County: $15.5 million (Population: 65,300)

Chattooga County: $2.4 million (Population: 25,100)

Dade County: $4.4 million (Population: 16,500)

Walker County: $8.8 million (Population: 68,200)

Whitfield County: $11.2 million (Population: 102,900)

Source: FY 2014 audits; U.S. Census Bureau

UPDATED: LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Bebe Heiskell believes her county needs more money — somehow.

Heiskell, the sole commissioner for Walker County, said during a speech at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the LaFayette Golf Course on Tuesday afternoon that many people in her community are too poor. To illustrate her point, Heiskell told local business owners, elected officials and municipal board members that 72.13 percent of children in the county are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

"That's disgraceful," she said. "We've got to do something to change that. I'm working very hard to raise the median income in Walker County so that a person working 40 hours a week will have enough money at the end of the day to pay for a child's lunches."

Heiskell, who is up for re-election this year, was subdued throughout her "State of the County" speech. She only spoke for two minutes, compared to the 20-minute speech by LaFayette Mayor Andy Arnold that preceded her and was filled with jokes and a slide show boasting accomplishments by his municipal government.

By contrast, Heiskell kept her head down for most of her 120 seconds in front of the crowd. She read a list of bullet points about the county's five-year plan. She said she wanted to talk more, but she was under a time constraint.

Heiskell said the Chamber luncheon was supposed to run from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, and she didn't take the microphone until about 12:57. She didn't want to stretch the event beyond the advertised time constraints.

"People would have started getting up to leave," she said.

Chamber President Lacey Wilson said Heiskell was not under an actual time constraint, though the group does try to wrap up its luncheons by 1 p.m. Sometimes, they last until 1:30. 

She said all of the speeches started later than expected because more than 100 people attended, and it took longer than normal for everybody to grab their food."

In her 16th year as the county's commissioner, Heiskell faces stiff competition. She announced earlier this month she is splitting from the Republican party, saying the local GOP has become too conservative and strayed too far from her beliefs. She plans to run as an independent candidate in the general election.

She will face the winner of the Republican primary pitting Mike Peardon against Shannon Whitfield. She will also probably face Perry Lamb Jr., who has announced he will run for Heiskell's commissioner seat as an independent candidate.

The challengers have criticized Heiskell's financial management, blaming her for the county's pending $10 million debt to Erlanger Health System. Since 2014, the local portion of property taxes has increased about 85 percent, from 4.705 mills to 8.725 mills.

On Tuesday, Heiskell listed her bullet-point plan for how to improve the county's financial picture. She did not provide specifics.

Partnering with existing businesses. Revitalize downtown with local government and business associations. Promote the LaFayette Airport. Create a task force of business leaders, industry leaders and educators to address key school issues. Support long-term planning and zoning initiatives.

Concerning the county's economy and what she believes are too many poor families, Heiskell said the county needs to attract more tourists. This has been a long-standing plan of Heiskell's, highlighted by her purchase of the Mountain Cove Farms property. County records show it has lost $1.8 million since fiscal year 2009.

Heiskell said the county does not receive enough in sales tax revenue, forcing her to increase property taxes. If the county can attract more tourists, the problem would be solved.

"We need desperately to bring in new business in Walker County," she said. "It appears, since we're not on the interstate, that we're going to have to have tourism tax since we don't have any sales tax to roll back our property tax."

In fiscal year 2014 — the most recent year available — Walker County received about $8.8 million in sales tax, according to an audit. That is significantly less than Catoosa County's sales tax revenue, which was about $15.5 million in 2014.

But when you factor in the populations of the municipalities, Walker County's sales tax revenue is about in the middle of the pack for the northwest corner of Georgia.

According to the Georgia Department of Education, as of October 2015 the rate of free or reduced-price lunches in Walker County is about on par with other counties in this section of the state.

"I didn't mean to be dramatic," Heiskell said at the end of her speech. "But it's kind of sad. Seventy-three percent? That's tough."

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


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