published Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Hamilton County Commissioner quarterly spending highlighted

Hamilton County Commissioners conduct business during a commission meeting in this file photo.
Hamilton County Commissioners conduct business during a commission meeting in this file photo.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Commissioner's Discretionary Spending
Commissioner's Discretionary Spending

Hamilton County Commissioners have spent more than half a million dollars of discretionary money in the first quarter of this fiscal year, and they have nearly a million bucks left in the bank, according to the first round of expenditure reports.

The commission released its first-ever quarterly discretionary spending report last week, after last month's approval of a transparency measure introduced by Commissioner Marty Haynes. The resolution is aimed at shedding more light on how the nine commissioners spend $100,000 a year each on school or government projects or nonprofit groups. The report was also posted online on the county website, as required by the resolution.

Good government groups hailed the push for public disclosure as a fine first step but said the discretionary process needs more limitations. Hamilton County is the only local government in the state that allows individual commissioners to direct more than $5,000 a year.

Haynes said Friday he is pleased so far with the report.

"That's what I had in mind. That shows what the balances were at the beginning and where the money was spent," Haynes said.

Originally, he had proposed real-time posting of discretionary fund balances. But the report was changed to quarterly to avoid undo strain on the county finance department, Haynes said.

"At the moment we are set for quarterly. If it needs to be more often than that -- if it needs to go monthly -- I'm sure we can adjust that," Haynes said.

Commissioners began the fiscal year, which started July 1, with nearly $1.6 million altogether. That includes the $900,000 added in this budget year and a combined $699,508 commissioners carried over from years past.

If a commissioner wants to purchase something that costs more than $10,000, the project has to be bid and approved by the mayor's office. If the purchase is $15,000 or more, the commission has to approve it.

But donations to qualified nonprofits don't need any approval, according to Hamilton County Spokesman Mike Dunne. That's how Commissioner Jim Fields was able to donate $30,000 to the Mountain Education Fund; Greg Beck was able to give $40,900 to the Mary Walker Historical and Educational Foundation; Tim Boyd was able to give $23,710 to the Belvoir Neighborhood Association; among other donations, without a public vote.

Six of the nine commissioners, Chester Bankston, Larry Henry, Greg Beck, Jim Fields, Warren Mackey and Joe Graham, have each already spent more than $50,000 -- half of what they were each allotted this year.

Bankston, who has spent the most so far this year -- just over $169,000 -- said there has just been a lot of demand for the District 9 money.

"My schools have hit me heavy. I've got 12 schools in my district -- more than anyone else," Bankston said. "They've just been asking for it, so I've been giving it to them."

The vast majority of Bankston's fund, all but $2,740, has gone to schools.

On paper, Bankston has $85,425 left, but he said Friday the actual number is less than that. Before he took office, former Commissioner Bill Hullander earmarked $75,000 of the District 9 fund to build a fire hall in Collegedale.

Commissioner Fred Skillern has spent the least amount this year and has the highest balance by far. He gave the Mowbray Fire Department $5,000 for gasoline and the Dallas Bay Fire Department $4,300 for equipment, according to the report. Skillern's fund is sitting at $416,429.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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