published Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Jim Coppinger’s harsh budget cuts

  • photo
    Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during the County Commission meeting after releasing his 2011-12 fiscal budget that included laying off 37 people.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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The budget cuts proposed by County Mayor Jim Coppinger for the range of county-subsidized civic agencies and the county’s Health Department are terribly short-sighted and needlessly counter-productive and self-destructive.

The value of the work performed by the public service agencies and organizations is crucial to the health and welfare of citizens across the county. Agencies that provide cultural and educational programming are no less important. They provide many of the amenities that are essential to attracting economic growth — just ask Volkswagen officials — and much of their programming is specifically targeted to serve the county’s most under-served and vulnerable youth.

For the public-service agencies, the ultimate social cost of failing to help support these agencies will be higher in terms of both the human toll and the actual dollar costs of defunding the agencies’ work. The higher social costs will simply outweigh the perceived savings to countywide taxpayers.

When the county cuts mental health services, for example, more of the mentally ill haphazardly end up in jail, where their public costs soon exceed the costs of treatment. That has been the documented trend since the state began cutting back both in-patient and out-patient care.

Coppinger’s hit on the county health department is especially brutal and tragically short-sighted. The county provides a little less than half of the health department’s $21 million budget; the larger share comes from state and federal matching grants allotted on the basis of specific health focus areas.

Of the 37 employees to be cut under Coppinger’s proposal, 14 will come from the sparsely staffed health department. Of the 17 job vacancies also to be left unfilled, four are in the health department.

Coppinger’s budget reduction of $617,000 — roughly 6 percent of the health department’s local funding — is almost certain to mean the loss of a greater amount in state and federal matching grants for the department’s programs.

The health department’s chief administrator, Becky Barnes, declined to discuss the impact of the job losses with this page, but other people in the medical community here are deeply concerned about the impact and associated long-term costs of the cuts with regard to the overall health and well-being of the community.

Cuts in health department spending and staff may require closing down health care centers and clinics; reducing the number of vaccinations; reductions in abstinence and family planning education, in smoking cessation resources, and in pre-natal care and education.

Hamilton County is already next-to-last in the state in the incidence of low-birthrate infants, a harbinger of higher medical and social costs. The new cuts and corresponding loss of services are likely to leave the county last in this vital area of public health.

Coppinger also proposes to halve the $3 million in annual funding to Erlanger hospital to help offset the cost of indigent care. The $3 million figure comes nowhere close to the actual costs of uncompensated care provided by Erlanger, a figure now around $82 million annually.

Yet the $1.5 million reduction to Erlanger may be the only Coppinger cut that makes some sense. Erlanger’s bureaucracy has become conspicuously bloated since Jim Brexler became CEO. He has nearly doubled the number of Erlanger vice presidents and top executive staff, from the nine at the hospital when he took over. That has enabled him to more than double his own compensation, to more than $700,000 in salary, bonuses and other perks.

Bonuses handed out to the hospital’s top executives and managers totaled more than $1.7 million in 2009, and $1.9 million in 2010. If cuts are necessary at the hospital to offset the Coppinger cut, bonuses should be the first item on the table.

But Erlanger is an anomaly in the category of county-subsidized public service agencies. The others are all small and work on shoestring budgets to improve the lives of orphaned or abused children, broken families, the medically needy and to serve other legitimate public health care and social needs. The County Commission should dismantle Coppinger’s cuts and, if need be, dig into the county’s excessive large $85 million contingency fund until it finds the will to fix a modest property tax increase.

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fairmon said...

An option would be for the county government to absorb the city government and cut out the duplications saving significant money and apparently have someone in charge that is committed to being a good steward of tax payer dollars. The author of this article gives no consideration to the high number of elderly on fixed or limited incomes that were seriously damaged by the cities lavish management style and their tax and fee increases. The same tax payers are the source of federal and state grants and matching funds. So, by allocating more local taxes they get to pay more state and federal taxes, isn't that just peachy.

These welfare centers should be funded by private donations and volunteers like other charities that do some excellent work. The federal government would serve people better if they allowed a "tax reduction" meaning reduce federal taxes due by the amount donated to a qualifying charity. That reduces the ridiculous cost of government processing it and taking their chunk to get it back to those receiving grants.

This article is the typical reaction of insisting on government doing what it has been doing while governments and people get broker and broker. Or, the I know we have to cut cost but do it to them, not me mentality. Or, increase their taxes but not mine.

June 21, 2011 at 12:25 p.m.
timbo said...

Harp3339, I agree with you on almost everything you said except your starting premise. Metro government looks good on paper. Eliminating dual spending looks like a good idea. The problem is that the savings will never be realized and the city would then infect the county with it's big spending ways and boondoggles.

The county school system is a prime example. When the school systems combined the same arguments were made. We can cut the central office, maintenance, etc and save all this money. Guess what, it didn't work out that way.

The agreement at the time did not allow any layoffs, etc. to realize these savings. If you look at the school system employment you will find that it increased during a time when students and the population in Hamilton County was stagnant or slightly decrease.

The second reason is that the city government is pretty liberal. It will infect the county government and the Lookout mountain crowd will not only run the city, it will run the county as well.

People in this county are too diverse to have a one size fits all government. What do people on Aslinger Rd. in Sale Creek have in common with somebody living in downtown Chattanooga. Not much..

Harry, is always wanting to spend someone else's money. If he feels guilty he should just write a check to whoever he wants. Raising taxes in our high employment economy is stupid. My compliments to Jim Coppinger. Keep up the good work.

June 21, 2011 at 2:05 p.m.
dg07102 said...

If the city of Chattanooga needs to tightening its financial belt, why the city would send three internal auditors from Chattanooga to attend a week long fraud conference in San Diego, CA? Are they all CFE (Certified Fraud Examiners) to earn there CPE credits?

June 22, 2011 at 12:09 p.m.
fairmon said...


Your concerns are the very reason I would only see one government working if the county assumed all governance which would give those in the county equal weight in governing. There is no way I could ever support the current city council and mayor assuming it. The city council is not in the real world and have to be as poor at managing things as any group ever ever assembled to perform the duties they are charged with.

It is time for politicians and citizens to realize the federal, state and local governments are broke and someone has to make some tough decisions. I am glad to see Coppinger willing to do that.

June 22, 2011 at 12:25 p.m.
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