Hamilton County Commission
Thousands of women who get their birth control at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department soon may find themselves with little or no access to the services if county commissioners cut off funding.
Commissioners voted 6-2 Wednesday to reject a $581,700 contract for family planning services through the health department. Later they reconsidered and voted to table the contract while they get more information.
Some commissioners cited two reasons for reduced funding to the department: the need to cut costs and fears that the health department is spending money it receives on abortions.
“I want to be sure we are not in any way using taxpayer dollars for abortions,” Commissioner Mitch McClure said after Wednesday’s commission meeting.
Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes told commissioners that no health department money is spent for abortions.
“We have absolutely nothing to do with abortions,” said Barnes, who said the department provides various forms of birth control, including condoms, injections and abstinence education.
“What we are trying to do is prevent abortions by providing contraception for women,” she said.
In the 6-2 vote, Republican Chairman Larry Henry and Democratic Commissioner Greg Beck voted to accept the grant, but Henry later changed his vote to no. Democratic Commissioner Warren Mackey was absent.
The commission has a 7-2 Republican majority; all of its members are men.
The body faces hard choices on health department funding. The looming expiration of a 45-year-old sales tax agreement with Chattanooga means the county stands to lose $10.5 million. County Mayor Jim Coppinger has said the department will face drastic cuts.
The sales-tax agreement, due to expire late this month, sets up the how the city and the county pay for jointly funded agencies like the health department
The commission’s first vote to reject the grant for family planning services came after a misunderstanding over terminology.
Before the first vote, McClure asked Barnes if the Health Department dispensed RU 486, sometimes called the “abortion pill.” It is used by prescription to terminate pregnancies in the first seven weeks after conception.
McClure referred to it “the morning-after pill,” and Barnes told him the morning-after pill is not the same as RU 486. The morning-after pill is another form of birth control and does not terminate pregnancy, she said. The department uses the morning-after pill but not RU 486, she said.
“We do not give the abortion pill,” Barnes told commissioners, who then voted to table the grant while seeking more information.
Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Middle and East Tennessee, called the commission’s actions “shocking.”
“I think it’s kind of shocking they are willing to put the health of thousands of women in Hamilton County in jeopardy over their misunderstanding of what the morning-after pill is,” he said.
The commission’s concerns about the family planning program are recent.
Nearly 4,000 local women used the program in 2010, said Diana Kreider, program manager for the health department. It is funded from federal grants and includes a $40,000 local match.
Barnes and other health department officials said funding has been approved routinely without fanfare since the 1970s.
“I’ve never been asked these questions,” Barnes said.
Beck urged commissioners not to be swayed by “ideology.”’
McClure denied any such motive.
“My questioning and my negative vote has nothing to do with political ideology,” he said. “It has to do with my belief that every child is a human being ... at any point of conception.”
Commissioner Fred Skillern said he doesn’t want to vote for anything “controversial” in a tough budget year. Commissioner Joe Graham also had moral concerns about the program.
“I don’t believe God makes a mistake when he creates a baby,” Graham said.
After the meeting, Skillern joked that the issue likely would take attention away from a recent Chattanooga Times Free Press article about Henry. Some property owners in his district are in a dispute with the Tennessee Department of Transportation over the value of their property. Henry raised ethical questions by recommending his son’s law firm to them.
“Mr. Chairman, we may have got you off the front page today,” Skillern said, cracking the room up.
In other business, commissioners approved Leslie Longshore as Hamilton County’s new human resources director. Longshore currently works prosecuting child abuse cases in the Hamilton County District Attorney’s office. She replaces Rebecca Hunter, who left to take a job in Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.
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 ...