published Monday, May 17th, 2010

Hitches few in budget process

Budget requests made to the Hamilton County Commission


by Dan Whisenhunt

Medical Examiner

Requested 2010-11: $944,716

Status: Increase, $139.21

Clerk and Master

Requested 2010-11: $754,121

Status: Decrease, $6,639

Circuit Court Clerk

Requested for 2010-11: $1.1 million

Status: Decrease, $3,542

Register of Deeds

Requested for 2010-11: $411,915

Status: Decrease, $3,130

District Attorney General

Requested 2010-11: $988,263

Status: Increase, $11,341

County Election Commission

Requested 2010-11: $1.7 million

Status: Increase, $203,987

Criminal Court Clerk

Requested 2010-11: $1.4 million

Status: Decrease, $25,217

District Public Defender

Requested 2010-11: $586,061

Status: Increase, $92,919

General Sessions Court

Requested 2010-11: $1.2 million

Increase: $10,641

Assessor of Property

Requested 2010-11: $3.4 million

Status: Decrease, $18,427

County Clerk

Requested for 2010-11: $1.7 million

Status: Decrease, $118,019

Source: Hamilton County Commission

The Hamilton County Commission was on the verge of getting everything it wanted during last week's budget hearings.

County Mayor Claude Ramsey and commissioners admonished departments to tighten up and request level or reduced funding, and for the most part they complied by presenting budgets at or near level funding.

But then Thursday came, the last day of the hearings and the one that broke the mold. The commission and city of Chattanooga officials heard the wish lists of jointly funded agencies. Nine agencies asked for a combined $3 million more in county money.

"I don't blame 'em for asking for more," Mr. Ramsey said of the agencies' requests. "I don't know if we're going to be able to provide for it."

Commissioner John Allen Brooks, chairman of the finance committee, said he personally supports a request by the public library for additional money for new technology. But on the whole, he thinks most of the requests will be denied.

"Sometimes everybody has wish list," he said.

Commissioner Warren Mackey said providing the extra funding would send the "wrong message" to taxpayers.

"Absolutely not," he said of the agencies who asked for more. "We are in tough economic times. Revenue collections are down ... the county was really clear in the way it handled its business. Apparently the message didn't get out to the agencies. If you don't have the money, you don't have the money."

Overall commissioners were pleased by the level funding requests from most agencies, and said so throughout the week.

Still, the 800-pound gorilla that wasn't in the commission room last week, the school budget, remains to be seen. The Board of Education postponed its budget presentation to commissioners. Board Chairman Kenny Smith said the budget might come up at the school board's meeting this week but won't move forward until the board hears back from a committee looking into the cost of employee health insurance.

The current school board budget, $359 million, is more than half of the county's current budget.

Mr. Smith said once board members receive the committee's report, they will work toward ironing out and approving the budget for the county's consideration. He promised the budget would be "balanced."

"We're looking at teacher cuts that are uncomfortable for us," Mr. Smith said. "Budgets are just tough. We look at every area we can cut. We have to take a balanced budget to them."

The county is required to pass a budget June 30 but may opt to pass a continuation budget, which would act as a place holder until the final budget is approved.

County Administrator of Finance Louis Wright said it's "very possible" the county could pass a continuation budget while the school board works things out.

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Article: Hopefuls back transparent government -- to a point

Article: County budget has doughnut hole

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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