published Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Cruel Hamilton County budget cuts

County government funding for more than a score of vital civic service agencies remains uncertain for the new fiscal year, which begins in July. Yet the necessity of the services the agencies provide cannot be disputed. They cover an array of missions: myriad public health issues, family and children’s services and shelter, care of the needy disabled and the mentally ill, community health clinics, services to needy families, and core community education and cultural amenities.

A list of some of the agencies’ names — a few large and some relatively small — reflects the scope of their contribution to the larger good of the community. They include: the Hamilton County Health Department, Erlanger Hospital, Joe Johnson Mental Health Center, Fortwood Center, Children’s Home/Chambliss Shelter, Orange Grove, Family & Children’s Services; TEAM Evaluation, CADAS, the Children’s Advocacy Center, AIM Center, Signal Centers, Bethlehem Community Center, Senior Neighbors, Allied Arts, WTCI Public Television, the Regional History Museum, the Urban League, and the African-American Museum/Bessie Smith Hall.

Most people who have resided here for years know and care about the essential good works of these agencies or, more personally, know a family or individuals who have benefited from the social services that most of these agencies provide. Education and cultural amenities provided by the others are uplifting and necessary in many ways.

It would be hard, moreover, to find an organization among this group that doesn’t work on a tight budget. Public funding doesn’t underwrite any entirely, but it is critical to all. It ensures receipt of matching grants and private donations that are necessary to continue their perpetually under-funded missions.

The Hamilton County Health Department, a state-mandated agency, receives, for example, more than half of its roughly $21 million budget through state and federal matching grants aimed at particular services. These include public health clinics, control of communicable diseases, children’s health, family planning, pre-natal care to improve infant health and child mortality rates, community wellness and obesity programs. Cuts by the county would sorely diminish or pre-empt these sustaining grants.

The Health Department is also the key link to the unique work of Project Access, a volunteer effort among health-care providers for free specialty care for unemployed and low-income patients and families. The 18-member pro-bono consortium has provided $72 million worth of free specialty care since its inception. If the County Commission continues on its blind path to slashing funding for the Health Department, vital health care services will be jeopardized, or eliminated at far greater expense and burden to the community.

The county’s current blind budget hacking similarly threatens all the other agencies, as well. We shudder to think of the children and families that would be denied critical services if the county, for instance, whacks the budget of the Children’s Home/Chambliss Shelter.

Given the potential damage of its announced budget-slashing course, county government’s lack of concern for the damage it may inflict on the public service organizations would be maddening, reckless and cruelly negligent.

The county’s excuse for crippling these agencies’ budgets is that the city of Chattanooga has let the former city-county sales tax agreement expire. But that inequitable agreement had to end. It required city taxpayers to pay twice for support of the public service organizations (or about 80 percent of the burden) while the other half of the county’s taxpayers paid just 20 percent. Even as the city has taken back the $10.5 million it had been gifting county government under the dated agreement, the city will still spend $6 million to continue funding shares to about half of the organizations, which is well beyond a reasonable limit.

City taxpayers, of course, would still continue providing 58 percent of any funding that the county provides through their countywide property tax — the most equitable source of any countywide funding for public needs..

The County Commission’s pretense of threadbare coffers or financial inability to make up the consequent net loss of some $4 million from the lapsed city-county sales tax agreement is similarly false. The County Commission could dip into its fund balance reserve, which, at roughly $85 million, is unusually large. The city of Chattanooga’s contingency reserve, for example, is barely a third of that amount.

County government, moreover, has raised the county property tax rate just twice (26-cents each time in 2005 and 2007) in the past 12 years. And because the county’s property tax rate has been adjusted downward (under state law) after each round of property reappraisals to prevent property-tax creep through inflation, the county’s tax rate now stands at $2.76. That’s far lower than the rate of $3.519 it applied in 2000.

County government is not overtaxing the community. Rather, it is under-taxing and significantly under-serving its constituents for the needs that should be met under a countywide tax. City taxpayers have shouldered more than their fair share too long.

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