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Get Ready To Pay More To Walker County Government
Despite revenues exceeding expenditures in the fire and rescue fund, Chairman Whitfield quietly proposes to raise the public safety fee(fire fee). I also explain why you are only now hearing about it.
This article also appears on NorthwestGeorgiaNews.com and in the Catoosa News Walker County Messenger opinion pages.
It is easier for me to write about the importance of transparency and accountability in government(especially local) than any other subject. To me it seems obvious, but I also understand that some may look at it differently and ask "Is that really necessary?" Let the following serve as an example.
On Thursday, April 7th, Walker County released the agenda and agenda packet for the next regular meeting of the board of commissioners set for Thursday, April 14th. It's great that the county does this because in addition to the agenda, which lists the items and topics the board will discuss, the agenda packet normally contains all of the supporting and supplemental documents that are related to each item on the agenda. This offers the public the convenience of knowing the details of items that may or may not affect their lives. It allows citizens to be more informed. It allows the public to ask thoughtful questions, resulting in a more trustworthy government.
It should work that way. However, Walker County leadership exhibits an irrational aversion to transparency and accountability. To them, transparency is like typhoid Mary in a kissing booth.
The most interesting item on the agenda for the April 14th meeting was “Resolution R-020-22 to Revise the Public Safety Fee Assessed in the County Fire and Rescue District.”
When the agenda packet was released on April 7th, it neglected to include one vital piece of information, namely the actual proposed fees for the fee increase. It included the resolution which stated the fee would be set according to the "Exhibit A." Unfortunately, the exhibit wasn't attached, in its place a blank page and a note stating that additional material would be provided prior to the meeting.
On Tuesday April 12th, I requested the proposed fee amounts from Chairman Shannon Whitfield and from Walker County Public Relations Director Joe Legge. The response I received from Legge was “I can send you the current fee structure. Nothing has been submitted yet regarding a change.” I thought this a stunning response. You may read the rest of my text message exchange with Legge in the screenshots below. Keep in mind that resolutions(including any attachment exhibits) are routinely released a week in advance without any items withheld. Withholding the fee attachment was extremely unusual and deliberate.
I did not receive the proposed fee changes despite my repeated requests. I was not alone in my concern. Several citizens have expressed outrage over the withholding of pertinent documents. The Chairman and the board of commissioners were publicly called out last night by Perry Lamb, who shared my view on this issue. As you can see, he took to Facebook to share his opinion.
Suddenly, this morning--the day before the meeting--the proposed fee structure appeared in the agenda packet, quietly posted on the county's website. What a coincidence! Please refer to "exhibit A" below.
Essentially, the Public Safety Fee will increase from $0.10 cents to $0.11 cents per square foot, and the maximum fee per single family dwelling, duplex, and triplex will grow from $400 to $500. All minimum fees are unchanged and maximum fees for agricultural, commercial and industrial properties will remain the same.
Previously known as the Fire Fee, the Public Safety Fee was last revised in 2017 and marked a radical departure from how fire and EMS services were funded in previous years. Prior to this change, fire and EMS services were funded by tax assessments on the fire and rescue tax district. The new fee structure is uncommon not only in Georgia but nationwide as well.
Several points need to be considered and several questions need to be answered. For example, why was the fee structure withheld until the day before the meeting and even then not announced?
Why is a fee increase necessary? The 2020 audit revealed revenues(public safety fee collections) exceeded expenditures in the Fire and Rescue Fund by more than $1.1 million. In 2019, revenue exceeded expenditures by over $500,000.
The most recent year's data isn't available. The 2021 audit was due to be finished and filed with state agencies by the end of March, but Walker County did not do so.
According to the audits, the Fire and Rescue fund is used to account for fees collected by the Tax Commissioner on behalf of the County that are specifically restricted to providing fire and rescue services.
As the revenues collected in that fund are restricted to providing fire and rescue services, where did the excess revenue go each year?
Is there data available to support the current funding levels and the department strategy? What is the fire loss data for previous years? Are all fire stations adequately staffed 24/7? What percentage of calls are for EMS rather than fire service?
Fee deductibility vs tax structure?
There are a number of flaws in the fee structure that are particularly burdensome for some community members. The county should hold a work session and town hall discussion to evaluate alternative funding strategies, mixed fee/tax ideas, and development impact fees to fund capital expenses and ease the burden on residents.
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