published Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Ban Hamilton County’s slush fund

Hamilton County commissioners surely enjoy the personal and political lift they get from directing the spending of $100,000 in their electoral districts, which each of them gets to do through the use of the discretionary funds they generously grant themselves each year from the county’s general operating budget.

But if earmarks are wrong for Congress and political slush funds are anathema to taxpayers, the commissioners’ discretionary funds need to be banned, as well. Commissioners cannot seriously expect taxpayers to accept any justification they use to hold on to the practice of allotting themselves an annual $100,000 allowance each for random spending. That $900,000 can be better spent.

That’s doubly true in a year in which the commission is demanding that the county school system slash its budget by $14 million, and is issuing warnings to all departments and dozens of county-supported agencies to cut their budget requests.

Indeed, county commissioners are saying, though on bogus grounds, they may have to cut deeply into the county’s Health Department budget due to the city’s decision to let the sales tax agreement expire. That agreement now channels $10.5 million from the city’s sales tax revenue into a fund from which the county directs expenditures for selected public and civic agencies. In reality, the city would use at least half that money to maintain the same support for the Regional Planning Agency and the Bicentennial Library that they now receive under the sales tax agreement.

County commissioners, moreover, have managed to stash away an $85 million contingency and capital fund in recent years — funds they say cannot be touched to offset the budget cuts they are warning about. Given these fiscal conditions, they cannot rationally justify keeping such discretionary funds for play money when they’re proposing such deep cuts everywhere else.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that commissioners — all seven Republicans and two Democrats — aren’t trying with a straight face to retain their discretionary funds.

Commission chairman Larry Henry, a Republican, says, for example, that the discretionary funds are “essential. He also claims that “95 percent of the funds” go to county schools in the districts of the individual commissioners.

Commissioner Warren Mackey, one of the two Democrats, says he “absolutely” wants discretionary funds in the new county budget. Commissioner Tim Boyd, a Republican, says he likes “the ability to impact people in [his] community.”

Another Republican, Chester Bankston, says he supports use of the discretionary funds because they’re used for projects the commission would not ordinarily fund. Commissioner Fred Skillern says discretionary funds are needed to ensure that all nine districts get equal funding. “Before you had discretionary money,” he adds, “certain districts got more money than others.”

Their general remarks hardly make ringing endorsements for the commission’s retention of discretionary funding. Indeed, if 95 percent of the funds go to county schools, the elected school board ought to be deciding the best use of the $900,000 it takes to give fund the nine commissioners’ discretionary funds budget.

Skillern’s notion that some districts would receive less than their fair share from the county’s budget is skewed, as well. It’s true that county taxpayers who live in one of the county’s 10 municipalities generally receive far fewer benefits from their county tax dollars than does the third of the county’s population that resides in unincorporated areas of the county.

The latter group gets an excessively disproportional (read: unfair) share because the county’s budget for public works, roads, sheriff’s patrol, sewer bonds and volunteer firehalls all goes to residents who live in the unincorporated areas of the county outside municipal boundaries. But that inequity especially benefits Skillern’s north Hamilton County district, which stretches from Soddy-Daisy’s northern boundary all the way to Rhea County. By his own argument, he shouldn’t get any discretionary funds, period.

In general, the commission’s discretionary funds are a relatively new budget item for county government, and there’s no good excuse for keeping them. It’s time that money was returned to the general budget for more rational use for the common good of all county taxpayers.

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