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Catoosa County Chief Financial Officer Carl Henson gives a SPLOST overview during a work session Monday, July 31, 2017, at the Catoosa County Colonnade in Ringgold, Ga. The Catoosa County Commission, Ringgold City Council and Fort Oglethorpe City Council held an Intergovernmental Work Session to discuss how to divide sales tax revenue, the county jail and more.
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In this 2017 staff file photo, Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk speaks during a work session at the Catoosa County Colonnade in Ringgold, Ga.

RINGGOLD, Ga. — Catoosa County's lower-level court is finally bringing in the money commissioners originally hoped for.

With Chief Financial Officer Carl Henson introducing the first draft of the upcoming budget during a county commission meeting Tuesday night, the county's largest expected increase in revenue comes from fines and forfeitures in state court. They are budgeting for about $909,000 for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. That is a $309,000 boost over last year's budget.

The increase in the budget is not because the commissioners expect a boost in state court next year. They simply realized they didn't expect enough this year.

Through nine months, the state court has generated about $718,000 in revenue. This put the court on track to bring in about $960,000 for the full year.

"That was the plan," Henson said after Tuesday's meeting. "We were anticipating for that to occur (beginning in 2016). But it was a little slower coming. And now we're reaping the benefits."

After the state legislature passed a local act in 2016, the county launched the state court that fall. This is a court that handles misdemeanors and some lawsuits. In theory, it should help the county in a couple different ways. First, it should speed up the court system (cutting down on the jail population). Before state court, a superior court judge had to handle all those cases. Now, those higher-court judges have a slightly lighter load, allowing them to focus more on felony cases.

And with a more efficient court system, the commissioners hoped it would bring in more money. State Court Solicitor Doug Woodruff said once a defendant is found guilty, they will begin paying some money to the county every month. But first, they have to actually go through the system. While expecting $909,000 in revenue this year, the county had budgeted about $470,000 for the judge and solicitor's salaries.

In the 2017 fiscal year, the state court saw about 1,000 cases. This year, they are on track for about 1,200. Woodruff expects that figure to stay flat next year.

"We're probably getting close to what would be the norm," he said.

The commissioners will hold a work session to review the budget at 1 p.m. today at 800 LaFayette St. in Ringgold. The commissioners expect to vote on a final budget during their Aug. 21 meeting.

Today, Woodruff expects to ask for an extra $20,000 in the budget to spend on an assistant. He would pay another local lawyer an hourly rate to help on court days. When a couple dozen defendants are sitting in court for hearings and potential pleas, Woodruff would like to divide the work with someone else. He doesn't know what the effect would be on the bottom, but he believes it would move cases along faster.

Said State Court Judge Ron Goulart: "Giving him that latitude and discretion would really help."

Overall, the commissioners are expecting a general fund budget with about $1.2 million more in spending and revenue this upcoming year. In both categories, the change would be about a 4.6 percent increase.

In many people's homes, the property tax bills should remain about the same. With property values increasing overall in the county, the commissioners plan to "roll back" the tax rate, from about 6.95 mills to 6.734 mills, a 3 percent drop.

Revenue changes

The budget projects about $450,000 more in taxes this year. The biggest driver? About $276,000 more in Local Option Sales Tax collections than what the county budgeted for last year. Henson said that is an adjustment, based on what they're seeing this year. Like with state court revenue, Henson said, the county got more from the tax fund than expected.

For this current year, the commissioners budgeted about $6.7 million in revenue. But through nine months, the county had brought in $5.3 million, putting them on track for $7 million for the full year — about the amount they are budgeting for in the upcoming year.

Spending changes

The biggest projected expenses this year are going to be funded from other governments. The sheriff's office has hired five new school resource officers, who will patrol the 10 local elementary schools.

Overall, the county is expecting to spend about $216,000 on those positions. But the school district has already agreed to pay those costs. Sheriff Gary Sisk said one of the few added expenses for the county commissioners will be $30,000 budgeted for a new vehicle. Typically, the county pays for that from a sales tax fund, in this case the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

But with an additional five officers on the force, he said he has to keep cars he normally would have had to trade in. He's asking to bring in one new vehicle. He is also budgeting about $25,000 more for fuel than expected last year, just based on projections of how gas prices are going to be.

The county is also budgeting $97,000 more for Trans-Aid buses, which pick up county residents who don't have other means of transportation. Henson said the current buses are old. But the funding for that will come from a grant from the state's Department of Transportation.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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