In the election for Hamilton County mayor, the political dynamic is skewed. Countywide voting trends favor Republicans, giving Jim Coppinger, who has held the seat on an interim appointment for nearly two years, a significant advantage. Yet his chief opponent, Dr. Rick Wilson, a veteran UTC political science professor, offers the best agenda. If voters in Chattanooga and the surrounding municipalities pick up on his ideas, they could turn the election in his favor.
Coppinger, who is seeking voter approval to finish the term he assumed when former County Mayor Claude Ramsey stepped down, has kept a low, cautious, conservative profile. He refused to offer an overdue tax increase last year; instead, he slashed employees' jobs and funding for vital social service agencies.
He's also rejected Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's efforts to expand the city's growth boundaries, and to begin consolidating core urban services — parks and recreation, public works (street maintenance and garbage collection), police and fire departments, and sewer systems — in order to reduce duplication, save taxpayer money and improve tax equity for municipal taxpayers in Chattanooga and the nine surrounding municipalities.
Coppinger's leadership skills, however, remain untested and unproven as a consequence of his unwillingness to engage such major issues. His resistance is hard to fathom. Consolidation of the city's and county's ambulance and 911 services have worked well, saved money and better served taxpayers countywide. Moreover, the incremental consolidation of basic urban services doesn't entail pursuit of metropolitan government. It might require county government to obtain a county charter, but so what. That's already needed to establish municipal-style ordinances as unincorporated areas of the county grow in density.
Wilson is a strong advocate of gradual, reasonable consolidation of core urban services. He correctly sees useful long-term improvements in operating efficiencies and tax equity for both the 170,000 residents of Chattanooga, or fully half of the county's population, and for the approximately 40,000 residents of the nine municipalities that surround Chattanooga.
The roughly three-quarters of the county population in the 10 municipalities pay twice for some essential services: first, they pay through their municipal property taxes for such services; then they pay again, through their countywide property taxes, to support the fire and police services that county government provides only in unincorporated areas of the county. So municipal residents are shafted by double taxation, while residents of unincorporated areas get a sweetheart deal: subsidies from municipal taxpayers that reduce the actual cost of their services in unincorporated areas.
It gets worse. The county's 10 municipalities have most of the county's commercial base — which contributes a huge portion of the county property tax base. They also provide most of the shopping, jobs, amenities and heavy-duty streets, and the maintenance cost for all this through their municipal tax base. That greatly expands their benefits to residents of unincorporated areas, and further diminishes the latter's share for the cost of these benefits
If Wilson could get his message out about the cost efficiency and tax equity of consolidated core services, voters in the county's 10 municipalities would surely see their benefit in supporting his incremental roll-out of consolidated urban services. Wilson further pledges that no municipality or unincorporated area would begin paying for a consolidated service until they begin receiving those benefits. So tax equity would work both ways.
Wilson's problem is the difficulty of communicating how his streamlined delivery of urban services would work, and how three-quarters of the county's taxpayers would benefit in lower taxes. Wilson is swimming upstream as a political challenger trying to persuade county voters in an campaign he's running on his own dime. And Coppinger is hanging back in pretty safe perch advocating doing nothing more than the status quo.
In this election, partisan juices and political strength favor Coppinger. Common-sense favors Wilson's more constructive agenda.