published Monday, April 18th, 2011

Agencies may lose county funds

by Dan Whisenhunt

When the sales-tax agreement between Chattanooga and Hamilton County ends in May, even nonprofit agencies not funded under the agreement could lose their county money, the county mayor says.

More than a dozen agencies that receive county funds outside the agreement are asking for roughly $2 million this year, county records show.

Whether they’ll get the money is an open question, County Mayor Jim Coppinger said.

“We’ll have to have that money [the $2 million] to plug into the gaps that are going to be made” by the expiration of the sales-tax agreement, Coppinger said.

The 45-year-old agreement gave the county control of about $10.5 million in annual sales tax revenue that now will go to Chattanooga. The pact will expire in May, and Chattanooga officials have said they do not plan to renew it.

“We’ll have to review each agency individually to see how it would impact the county,” Coppinger said.

He said one agency that’s more likely than others to receive funding is the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, which receives more than $500,000.

“Obviously the Chamber plays a critical role in economic development as far as recruitment,” Coppinger said. “There’s an obvious need.”

J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing and communication for the Chamber, ticked off a list of reasons that county taxpayers should continue their support. The Chamber is asking for a $450,000 budget appropriation plus $75,000 to promote Enterprise South industrial park, county records show.

“Since July of 2007, our work has resulted in the creation of 6,010 new jobs with average wages of $46,775, so we bring an incredible return on investment to the city and county,” Marston said.

But other agencies’ officials also said they provide valuable services for the money they receive.

Kim White, president and CEO of the River City Co., said her organization provides a laserlike focus on recruitment of businesses to the downtown area. The organization is asking for $125,000 this year, its first-ever request for county funding.

“The county has typically funded economic development activities, and this is an area the Chamber is not focusing on,” White said. “We have 1 million square feet of vacant businesses downtown.”

The Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition said it leverages the county money it receives into $2.2 million worth of grant funding. It is asking for $15,000 to hire someone to coordinate grant applications.

“It’s one of those things where investing in us helps the whole community,” said Executive Director Mary Simons.

Choose Chattanooga wants $50,000 to help people relocate here. Executive Director Linda Bennett said people who move here are the face of Chattanooga’s work force.

Coppinger said the county will “do a comprehensive review of what supporting agencies are receiving any money and see what role they play and to see what measurable difference they’ve made in our county.”

County leaders are most worried about making sure the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department is funded. The department used $4.5 million from the sales-tax agreement to draw down federal and state grants. The loss of that money could slash as much as $10 million out of the department’s $21 million budget, Coppinger said, so county officials are looking for ways to make it up.

County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he’s not optimistic most of the other agencies will receive funds.

“We’re going to have to take that issue up when it comes,” Henry said. “I would think that the lion’s share of our funding is going to have to go to the Health Department and take care of our agencies like emergency management services and Erlanger [hospital].”

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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