Commissioner Jason Winters is still refusing to face the biggest issue effecting the county’s budget and Chattooga County taxpayers.
Revelations this week that Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters has once again failed to pay the bills seems to be irritating a good many voters in Chattooga County, but it is not new news. Winters has been robbing from Peter to pay Paul for at least eight years and continues his song and dance with the voters and taxpayers in this county. Winters was over $1 million behind by the end of December, this despite the fact that he borrowed $2 million to fund the county’s spending in 2017.
In the 2016 election Commissioner Winters said “It is guaranteed that Jimmy Holbrook will raise the taxes on Chattooga County property owners and take money out of your billfold so he can fund his growing Christmas list of projects. I know how to run the County and I know how to run it with the least amount of burden placed on the good people of this county who own property and fund the majority of our operations. My opponent is going to say and promise anything to get elected and one thing is for sure, he will raise your property taxes.” (Jason Winters, Chattooga County Commissioner Facebook Page). The good people of this county are now facing rising property taxes without anything new to show for it.
When I ran against Commissioner Winters I told the voters that we need a new jail in this county. That is still true today. With nearly $1 million a year leaving our county to house prisoners, we cannot afford to put off planning for a new jail. Commissioners in the past have kicked the can down the road and for the past nearly ten years, Winters has done the same thing. We can’t saddle the property owners of this county with the bill. The fact is we could build a new jail by issuing bonds. The same way Commissioner Pete Denson built the current jail years ago. The problem is, the scrutiny that would be placed on the county’s finances in order to issue bonds would shed too much light on Winters handling of the county’s budget.
I cannot say that taxes didn’t have to be raised. But they shouldn’t have been raised until all unnecessary spending was reduced. They shouldn’t have been raised in a manner that put an excessive burden on the property owners of this county. The fact is, Winters knew in 2016 that raising taxes was inevitable regardless of who was sitting on 10102 Commerce Street in the Commissioner’s Office. What he successfully did is seize on the fears of voters. What he failed to do was have an honest discussion about the state of our county’s finances and an honest discussion about the jail issue.
Now, the Commissioner is going to ask voters to support a new sales tax. There are very good reasons to support the sales tax referendum. It only makes sense to reduce the property tax burden by having a sales tax to fund roads and bridges in the county. While it is hard to get a handle on exactly how much revenue the sales tax would bring in, it is sure to give some wiggle-room in the county’s tight budget. It should mean that Winters could cut property taxes nearly as dramatically as he raised them. The problem is, he can’t pay the bills now. Any reduction in property taxes will be a shell-game by a savvy politician.
What he has done is exactly what unscrupulous retailers do when they mark up an item, only to mark it down and tell you that it’s “on sale.” The Commissioner is going to try to convince the voters of this county that they are getting a “deal” on their property taxes by voting for the new sales taxes. As necessary as the sales tax may be for the county’s property owners, it can also drive retail business out of the county; especially on big-ticket items where people can save a few hundred dollars by driving to another county with lower sales tax.
In 2013 when Commissioner Winters raised property taxes after being re-elected he said that the property tax increase was needed to “reduce the county’s dependence on tax anticipation notes.” Fast-forward to 2016 when he said, “Our county has effectively used Tax Anticipation Notes to help fund our early year operations until our tax funds come in later in the year.” In less than four years Commissioner Winters went from a negative view of borrowing money to fund the county’s day-to-day operations, to saying that borrowing money is the fiscally sound way to run the county.
In the last race, I raised the issue about county employee retirement. Winters now says that he is going to reinstate the county’s retirement program. I commend the Commissioner for doing the morally right thing by funding the retirement. The question is where will the money come from? Has he raised property taxes enough to cover current expenses and fund the retirement?
Until Commissioner Winters faces the elephant in the room regarding the Chattooga County Jail and the burden that it places on our taxpayers and comes up with a bold plan to remedy the drain of precious resources to other counties, we will not see any real progress in the county’s financial health.
We will see what Commissioner Winters puts before the voters of this county with the new sales tax and what kind of promises he makes regarding reducing property taxes.
Then we will see what kind of promises are fulfilled. In the meantime, we can watch as he kicks the can further down the road.