County Mayor Jim Coppinger, left, and Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield.Staff file photos
In an ideal world, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger would meet or talk almost daily to keep a mutually cooperative agenda for the county’s increasingly bright economic future moving briskly along. The possibility that county residents may soon have to pay a fee to check out materials from the public library, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library, suggests that’s not the case, never mind the joint ownership of the land on which the city-county library sits.
Rather, talk about a library fee, a minuscule matter, can be seen as a regrettable metaphor for the frayed relationship between our city and county governments. The mayors are stumbling over stobs toward a fight when the county as a whole, infused by new and pending economic growth, should be taking flight.
At one level, the idea of charging county residents who live outside the city of Chattanooga for use of what has always been known as the city-county public library seems petty and small-minded. At another, it reflects the division between the two governments that has taken root since Littlefield’s forward-looking proposals for consolidation of some countywide services culminated in the city’s decision last month to let a 45-year-old sales tax agreement expire.
Expiration of that agreement was long overdue. It simply transferred $10.5 million of city sales tax revenue to the county’s coffers to help fund the city’s and county’s shared support of two dozen civic agencies. The problem was that the agreement had city taxpayers paying double — first from their municipal sales tax revenue, and then from the countywide property tax that all municipal residents and business in Hamilton County also pay.
County government, to be sure, kicked in a couple of million more dollars to support the services of other valuable civic non-profit agencies that had been added to the list of agencies to be funded under the conceptual umbrella of shared responsibility on which the sales-tax agreement was originally founded.
Even so, city residential and commercial taxpayers still financed 58 percent of the county funding for those agencies through their countywide property tax. The city agreed, however, to keep paying more than $5 million to fully support both the Regional Planning Agency and the city-county library, except for the single branch that lies outside the city — in Collegedale.
Now, it is time for the county government to underwrite the funding for the balance of the costs for the civic agencies. If county officials must now raise the property tax modestly to fulfill the countywide responsibility, it should do so without complaint.
The way county government officials — Mayor Coppinger and several members of the County Commission — have talked angrily about the city’s decision to end the sales tax agreement, however, has made it evident that they are not going to give the city — that is, city taxpayers — credit for the value of their continued contribution through their county property taxes.
They’ve said, for example, that since the city took away the gift of its sales tax to the county, that the civic agencies will have to look to the city for continued funding. This is egregiously unfair. It ignores the core tax equity issue.
City taxpayers have been paying double, while residents of other municipalities, and especially residents of unincorporated areas, have not been paying their fair share of the agencies’ support. Chattanooga residents and businesses would continue to pay 58 percent of the burden — well above the city’s per capita share — if the county has to raise the countywide property tax rate. Still, the countywide property tax remains the only viable tax source for services that are legitimately countywide.
County government has not raised the county’s property tax rate since 2007, and most of that modest 26 cent increase went to the county school system. It’s time county officials stepped up to their broad responsibilities for the county health department and the full range of civic agencies that serve the needs of the county’s mental health, family and children’s services, and the civic and cultural organizations that keep the community strong, vibrant and appealing to new industries. If the county government is ever going to be a truly countywide government, it must, at last, act like it.