published Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Chattanooga: City says agreement needs to become history


by Cliff Hightower
Audio clip

City Council meeting - 04/12/2011

The Chattanooga City Council emphatically said Tuesday night that the sales tax agreement needs to go the same route as city commissioners and a city education system — into the history books.

The council voted 9-0 Tuesday night to let the 45-year-old sales tax agreement expire in May, giving itself complete control of almost $10.5 million annually in sales tax.

And council members said it was time for Hamilton County government to start paying more for responsibilities such as the Hamilton County Health Department and Erlanger hospital.

“It’s time for that government to step up its role,” said Councilman Peter Murphy. “We shouldn’t be crutching them along anymore.”

The resolution also states the city favors paying for libraries within city limits and the whole of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency. The resolution calls for the county to fund all of the health department, Erlanger hospital and Hamilton County Emergency Services.

Councilwoman Deborah Scott spent Tuesday morning giving an hourlong presentation on the sales tax agreement. During the slide show, she pointed out the city carries the financial burden of supporting nonprofit agencies and quasi-governmental bodies supported by the 1966 sales tax agreement.

According to Scott’s figures, the city pays more than $14 million into funding agencies within the agreement. She said $10.5 million of city sales tax goes into paying for the agencies, along with $4.1 million in city general fund money. She also pointed out in her slide show that the city paid twice for some agencies and city sales tax went to county responsibilities.

Louis Wright, the county’s chief financial officer, said Tuesday he debated how the city was coming up with its figures.

“We don’t earmark the dollars,” Wright said. “It goes into a general pot.”

He also said the city and county jointly funded agencies like the health department and Erlanger hospital “long before there was a sales tax agreement.”

Scott also said if the city funded the libraries and planning agency, it would free up $7.3 million for the county to spend on agencies. Wright said the health department alone was $8.8 million, combined with $3 million to fund the hospital.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said that would still leave the county in the hole.

“That still leaves us millions of dollars short,” he said.

But council members and city administrators made a point Tuesday that they have no legal obligation to fund the health department, hospital and emergency services.

Dan Johnson, the city’s chief of staff, stood up at one point during the presentation and pointed at the “County” in “County Health Department.”

“Can I make a point?” he asked. “See this word? It’s self-explanatory. It’s a county responsibility.”

The full name of the agency is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.

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