Laughter gives overview of county finances

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News

Lynn Laughter, chairman of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, talks with Mary Thelma Norris at the Mack Gaston Community Center before a League of Women Voters of the Dalton Area meeting.

Four years ago, the Whitfield County Fire Department and Sheriff's Office, Whitfield County Emergency Medical Services and the Dalton fire and police departments were using an analog radio system that relied on 40-year-old technology.

"Sheriff's deputies and policemen, firefighters from the county and city could be in a building and with the old equipment they had they could not communicate with each other," said county Board of Commissioners Chairman Lynn Laughter. "That's life threatening."

Laughter spoke Thursday night about county finances to about three dozen people at Dalton's Mack Gaston Community Center to the League of Women Voters of the Dalton Area.

Laughter noted that a new emergency communications system was the top project in a four-year Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) voters approved in 2015 that expired on June 30 of this year. A SPLOST is a 1% tax on most goods sold in the county that can only be used for capital spending and special projects. The final numbers are not in yet, but that SPLOST was on target to collect $64 million.

The county used $12 million of that to install a new digital communications system for all first responders in the county.

"The equipment is so much more modern," she said. "Everybody that I talk to — every firefighter, every deputy, every policeman for the the city — they are thrilled to have a communications system that helps them better save lives and do their jobs."

The SPLOST also funded the $1.2 million Whitfield County Fire Station 11 in Cohutta, as well as six new fire trucks for the Whitfield County Fire Department.

Laughter said those improvements to fire service helped bring the Insurance Services Office (ISO) rate down from a 5 to a 3 in almost all parts of the county. ISO rates fire departments on a scale of 1 to 10, the lower the better. And some insurance companies use those ratings, in part, to determine homeowners’ insurance rates.

The county is currently building another fire station, its twelfth, on South Riverbend Road, in the south end of the county, which she said will help bring the ISO rating in that area down to 3. That fire station is being funded with $4 million in bonds.

Whitfield County expects to run a surplus in its general operating budget, with budgeted expenditures of $47.1 million in 2019 and forecast revenue of $49.1 million.

Laughter said the property tax accounts for 51% of revenues and the county's share of the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) for 17% of revenue. A LOST is a 1% tax on most goods sold in the county that can be used for operating expenses.

League President Debby Peppers said many people don't have the chance to attend the commissioners' monthly meetings, so League members asked her to speak.

"Putting together the budget and overseeing it is one of the most important thing that commissioners do," she said. "That is the taxpayers' money, after all. So we hoped to provide an opportunity for people to learn more about the budget."

League board member Jevin Jensen regularly attends commission meetings, but he said he still found the presentation informative.

"At the monthly meetings, they do go over the financial statements. But that's usually just for the one month," he said. "This was a much broader overview."

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