When the praises go up, the tax bills go down

When the praises go up, the tax bills go down

September 24th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Ray C. Burnfin, 71, talks about a gospel singing he and his wife are doing. Burnfin says the proceeds will go toward Walker County local government to reduce the deficit there.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Like the good Lord, brother Ray Burnfin is not afraid of tax collectors. He's become one even, in a sense.

Burnfin, 71, will host a hymn singing at the Walker County Civic Center at 7 p.m. on Oct. 13, and he promises to dedicate all ticket proceeds to the county government. He said God called him to create this event about a month ago, after the county sent out a notice that some people's property taxes would go up a little bit this year.

"As Christians, we're not supposed to backbite, finger-point or accuse, even if we have justified reasons," Burnfin said. "I am negative sometimes. I am particularly negative about our government. There's nothing good about it at all. But there is a time when citizens have to step up."

Burnfin will lead worship out of the Broadman Hymnal, which the Southern Baptist Convention published in 1940. He said some songs date back to the Great Awakening. Examples include "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" and "Crown Him With Many Crowns."

Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for children 6-12 years old. Children under 6 get in free. To keep the event above reproach, the Bank of LaFayette will handle ticket sales.

Sheila Riddle, an administrative assistant at the bank, said Burnfin gave them 50 tickets to sell about two weeks ago. She said the first potential customer called Thursday. The woman wanted several tickets. She also happened to work for the county.

(Joe Legge, a county spokesman, said the local government has nothing to do with the event and that the employee is buying the tickets independently of her job.)

Burnfin is still ironing out the details. He is not a trained musician but said he has a good ear for this sort of thing. His father led worship at a church in the 1950s, and he grew up singing out of the Broadman Hymnal. He sang specials in church and participated in a cappella harmonies.

He will lead music at the event and has advertised on WDYN, a Christian radio station. He is not sure whether a choir will be there or whether all the sound will rise from the mouths of the attendees. He is also not sure whether any musicians will attend. He said he is in talks with artists who play the piano and string instruments.

Burnfin expects the concert to last at least an hour. It may stretch longer, with an intermission, depending on how his voice feels.

"We're going to pray the Holy Spirit down on this meeting," he said. "We're going to sing our way out of trouble, and we're going to pray our way out of trouble. People are going to enjoy it."

According to the most recent audit, the county was $62 million in debt as of Sept. 30, 2017. That was a key issue in Shannon Whitfield's successful campaign to become commissioner. When he took office last year, he raised property taxes by about 22 percent. He also created a separate fee to pay back an $8.7 million debt to Erlanger Health System within three years. Adding in this fee, residents' payments to the county increased 50-70 percent last year, depending on where in the county a property owner lived.

This year, Whitfield held the property tax rate in unincorporated parts of the county flat. He increased taxes in the incorporated part of the county by 1.5 percent. Overall, when you account for increased property values in some parts of the county, the local government receives about $260,000 more this year.

Overall, the county commissioners have increased property tax revenue in four of the last five years.

When Burnfin announced his hymn-singing plan at an Aug. 23 meeting, the crowd cheered. Whitfield, for his part, said "Thank you" but did not sing praises. Afterward, some county employees said they weren't sure exactly how a donation would work.

Legge said no one has tried anything like this since Whitfield hired him in January 2017, except for some people who donated funds to the animal shelter.

"We would probably have to look at setting up some sort of separate account to accept donations in that regard," he said. "But we haven't crossed that bridge yet."

County Attorney Matt Williamson said he also has not researched the legal mechanics of a proposal like Burnfin's. He has heard of residents donating land to a county for specific purposes, such as building a park.

"But in terms of straight-up money?" Williamson said. "I've never had experience with anybody just giving straight-up cash to the government."

Clifton "Skip" Patty, who has served as Catoosa County's attorney for 32 of the last 37 years, said a monetary donation can be treated the same as other donations to a local government. He could not recall whether he knew anyone who gave cash to a county, though.

"I wouldn't see a problem with it," he said. "But we don't get donations every day."

Burnfin does not have a goal for money raised at the singing. He believes in the power of momentum, though.

"We're going to have to do this time and again," he said. "I feel certain it's going to be a long-range program. We're going to bring other singings down."

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


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