RINGGOLD, Ga. — The Catoosa County Commission voted Wednesday night to increase property taxes by about 10 percent.
The elected officials voted 4-1 to approve a $1 million increase in the budget, bringing expenses and revenue up to $25 million for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The one holdout on the budget vote, Commission Chairman Keith Greene, did not explain his reasoning.
For someone owning property in the county worth $125,000, the new budget will cost them an extra $31 a year, assuming he or she has a homestead exemption. School taxes in the county are remaining the same this year.
The biggest increase in the budget comes from the opening of a state court that will handle misdemeanors and some civil cases. The court, which is supposed to speed up the judicial process for the whole county and save money on jail expenses, will cost the county about $500,000.
The commissioners also approved a cost-of-living increase for county employees that will cost about $310,000. In addition, the county is giving the fire department about $200,000 more, allowing a new chief to potentially add more full-time firefighters when he or she steps in next year.
Before the commissioners voted, several residents asked them to delay a decision, hoping they would find ways to cut the budget. Cherise Miller told the commissioners to stop taking county health and life insurance.
"You are elected, part-time people, not full-time employees," she said. "If I was in your position, I would not be taking insurance, either."
But not everybody advocated for a smaller budget. Catoosa County Chief Magistrate Judge Johnny Gass asked the commissioners to throw more money into his department's fund. Under the budget that was approved, the magistrate court is losing about $54,000.
Why? With the creation of the state court, the commissioners figure, the magistrate court will see less action. The county is funding three judges instead of four. But Gass said state court will not decrease the flood of cases like the commissioners think. He said people in town come to his office to resolve issues they don't want to put in the hands of the police or sheriff's offices.
"Gentlemen," Gass said, "I need four judges. I need them."
The drop in funding represents an 8.2 percent decrease. The county's probate court also was cut by about $70,000 — a 15.4 percent drop.
Before the vote, only Commissioner Ray Johnson offered thoughts on why he would approve the new budget. He did not address any specific department of the county, instead offering the people his outlook on life.
"I'll make some bad decisions," he said. "I'll make some good decisions. I'll make them to the best of my ability. Hopefully, they're good. If not, I'll answer them later on. I've worked on it and worked on it. And I've talked to people. The way I'll go tonight is the way I think I have to go."
The commissioners then approved the budget. The only holdout, Greene, did not offer reasons why he objected. He also did not return a call seeking comment after the meeting.
But in the past two weeks, Greene was the only commissioner to object to one particular part of the budget: $97,000 in funding to the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority, a group that markets the area to potential businesses. Greene said during an Aug. 19 meeting that the JDA did not provide any substantial return on the county's $730,000 investment over seven years.
Commissioners Jim Cutler and Jeff Long said the county should continue funding it, saying the JDA members have worked hard; it's the county's fault because it doesn't own enough land to attract businesses. Commissioner Bobby Winters approved continuing to fund it because its executive director, state Sen. Jeff Mullis, has promised to provide the county with monthly updates on the work it does.
Resident Phyllis Williams criticized the funding during Wednesday's meeting.
"Nobody has known what goes on down there," she said. "What they do, what they bring here, what they don't do. We sit here, month after month, listening to people come down here and ask for money."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@times freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.