published Thursday, July 1st, 2010

County officials mum on budget options


by Dan Whisenhunt
Audio clip

Larry Henry

Chattanooga came a little bit closer Tuesday to finalizing its budget for 2011, and it includes $1 million in cuts to city-funded agencies, some of which also share funding from the county.

The city also changed its retirement medical benefits, making them similar to the county's, but County Mayor Claude Ramsey would not speculate on whether that's a nod toward future metro government.

In fact, Mr. Ramsey and County Administrator of Finance Louis Wright didn't forecast what the city's actions mean for the county's budget.

In general, Mr. Ramsey said the county pays attention to what the city does, but he said it's a point of reference and not a determining factor.

County officials repeatedly admonished departments to hold the line on budgets this year and, for the most part, they complied. But jointly funded agencies asked for a combined $3 million more in county money.

"Each (jointly funded) agency has a common interest, but you also have a limitation of what you can do," Mr. Ramsey said.

Overall, commissioners didn't make any sweeping predictions about what the city's budget actions might mean for the county. But giving the agencies more to compensate for their loss was not a popular idea.

"I don't want to say we would give them any more," Mr. Hullander said. "I would hope the county would be able to continue to do what we've got planned."

Commissioner Warren Mackey said the county would take care of its responsibilities.

"Those supported agencies, they render good services," he said. "However, if the money is not there, it's not there, and I don't anticipate the county raising taxes or anything to bridge that gap."

On a first reading Tuesday, the City Council approved a change to the city's post-retirement medical benefits, something that puts Chattanooga employees' retirement medical benefits more in line with Hamilton County's.

Under the new rules, any new city employee or current employees not eligible under specific age or time-in-service requirements would not have lifetime benefits and would be dropped from the city's medical plan at age 65, records show.

Commissioner Jim Coppinger said retirement benefits are "certainly a big sticking point" when it comes to consolidating city and county services.

Mr. Wright said he didn't want to discuss whether the city's actions would have any bearing on city-county consolidation.

"You're talking about a very complicated subject," he said. "There's a whole lot more to it."

Staff writer Cliff Hightower contributed to this story.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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