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Commissioner Heiskell reflects on tough year

Last year was a time of triumph and tribulation for Commissioner Bebe Heiskell.

“It was one of the worst years,” she said. “Personally, I lost my sister — I’m still grieving and working through closure — and had a particularly difficult election.”

Heiskell was re-elected to a fourth term as the county’s sole commissioner with a hotly contested primary victory in which she defeated challenger Paul Shaw and a convincing win over write-in candidate Ales Campbell in the November general election.

A veteran of politics, Heiskell said that race was waged differently than any she had previously experienced.

“It was an Internet election, something I’d not dealt with,” she said. “Anonymous online voices making accusations and statements; it was unnerving.”

Aside from personal matters, Heiskell said one of the most challenging situations she had to deal with as an elected official was the process of working to bring Hutcheson hospital back from the brink of financial collapse.

“That was harder than the election,” she said. “Things are better, but it is an ongoing struggle.”

A lingering recession and slow economic recovery also made it difficult for the county to make headway in efforts to improve its infrastructure, services and appeal for developers and business, said Heiskell.

“The economy is still down, prices are up and fuel prices remain an unknown,” she said. “There is a good possibility that our ISO rating will be upgraded, but I’d still like to add a third shift of paid firefighters at each station.

“TSPLOST [a local option sales tax with revenue dedicated to transportation-related capital projects] was a disappointment. When it failed, there was no ‘Plan B’ and now it is much more difficult to improve roads. Not only does the state not have as much money available as in the past, since TPLOST was rejected we now must pay 30 percent instead of 10 percent of any project that would qualify for matching state funds.”

The county’s financial situation could worsen if the formula changes for dividing revenues from LOST, the local option sales tax, between the county and its four city governments.

“LOST was established to control raising property tax at the county level,” Heiskell said. “It changed to allow the cities to have a share based on population and now they are demanding an even greater portion.”

But 2012 was not all doom and gloom, the commissioner said.

Local industries began to expand operations and, with the recession easing and the presidential election over with, the county is receiving inquiries from businesses interested in locating in Walker County.

“Phillip Brothers Machine Co. hired 100 [people] and will hire another 30 within the next few months,” Heiskell said. “Instead of closing and moving operations to South Carolina, United Synthetics expanded to a new 35,000-square-foot warehouse and installed $2 million worth of equipment.

“Inner City Aquaponics has expanded its facilities in Rossville and is working with high schools and colleges in Walker County, in Chattanooga and in Kennesaw. They are also working on a contract with the Ugandan government to take mobile farming applications into starving communities in that African nation.

“Old Mill Kettle Corn is expanding their operations with a $1 million expansion and marketing effort.

“Archer Plant is in the process of plumbing in water and natural gas lines to operate a water bottling plant and aquaponics operation. It could become the largest market for fresh fish and seafood east of the Mississippi.”

The year also produced good things for several specific local communities.

Armuchee Valley and Cedar Grove have had major projects that restored roads and added water lines to those areas, and a new fire and ambulance station was opened in Mineral Springs.

After noting the bad and good things that had happened last year, Heiskell said she expects 2013 to present its own difficulties, challenges and rewards.

“We’ve lost tax digest and are still uncertain as to what will happen with how LOST will be divided,” she said. “But we’ll keep moving forward.”

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