published Friday, April 5th, 2013

Todd Gardenhire stalls bill on Hamilton County cremation

Poll
Should the county cremate dead indigents?

If Hamilton County commissioners won't address the county's sick, then why should the state Legislature worry about the county's dead?

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, voiced that sentiment Thursday as he delayed action on a bill that would allow Hamilton County to cremate local residents who die with no money for burial.

The political power play, he hopes, will prod county commissioners to act on a bill to restructure Erlanger hospital's board of trustees and funding.

"I asked the sponsor to roll the [cremation] bill another week," Gardenhire said in an interview. "We've asked the county to vote on a bill that we sent them, and they have not done anything. They can vote up or down, but they need to take a stand."

Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Erlanger bill in February, but it must be ratified by the commission before it can be implemented. It has never emerged from the commission's Legal Committee for a vote by the full panel.

"I think that's pretty decisive action," Commission Chairman Larry Henry said Thursday about the languishing legislation. "Not even coming out of committee for recommendation? The commission was not in agreement with that bill."

The county budgets $1.5 million annually for the hospital, which operates on a $500 million budget and provided $85.5 million in uncompensated care last year. Despite the county's arguably small contribution, commissioners have insisted they need to maintain a measure of control over trustee appointments -- something the bill takes away in an attempt to "depoliticize" the board.

Commissioners also took issue with a part of the bill linking the county's annual funding to the Consumer Price Index.

But Henry said he doesn't understand why the commission's inaction on the Erlanger bill would affect legislative action on the cremation bill.

"I wouldn't think the cremation bill should have anything to do with the hospital," he said.

County officials say the Ruth B. Cofer Cemetery, which is where the indigent are buried, is swiftly running out of room. The cemetery most likely will be full before the end of the year. They are pushing state lawmakers to allow the cremation of indigent people whose funerals are handled by the county. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

"The last time we got a shipment of empty caskets, we were told that the number would complete the entire cemetery," county Mayor Jim Coppinger said.

If the bill isn't approved, Coppinger said the county would be forced to buy more land for indigent burials.

Gardenhire insists the Erlanger bill requires the same sense of urgency as the cremation bill.

"We're talking priorities here. I submit the attention they need to give Erlanger is more important than the attention we need to give cremation," he said.

Coppinger would not comment on Gardenhire's actions, saying the dispute should be addressed by the commission and lawmakers. He stressed, however, that he hopes the cremation bill passes.

Both sides blame poor communication by the other: Gardenhire says he has not heard from a single commissioner about the Erlanger bill, while Henry says the delegation has not addressed the commission's concerns about it.

"I think the ball is in their court to rework the bill and bring it back to us," said Henry. "I don't see a need in us initiating a call. I think they know what our needs are, and they can contact us."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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