published Friday, September 20th, 2013

Hamilton commissioners, show us the money

The Hamilton County Commission sets aside almost $1million per year for commissioners to use as discretionary funds.
The Hamilton County Commission sets aside almost $1million per year for commissioners to use as discretionary funds.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

There is something deeply disturbing about the way the Hamilton County Commission has for years been giving the county’s nine commissioners $100,000 a year, nearly $1 million annually, to spend at their discretion within the county.

They can spend the money on school buildings, projects or nonprofit organizations. They also receive $8,000 for other undefined discretionary expenses. There are no votes on their “discretionary” spending, unless the price tag for a “project” exceeds $15,000.

Even more distressing, county officials have offered very little transparency about how the money has been spent, and when asked by Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon to provide a full historical record, he was told that would take considerable time to track.

Since commissioners began receiving discretionary money in 1981, a cumulative $8.2 million has been allocated from different pots of money and accounted for in different ways. When the practice started in 1981, commissioners shared just $70,000 a year, records show. Some older records are stored in several areas and not immediately accessible, officials told Brogdon.

But beyond transparency questions, the nearly $1 million spent yearly in discretionary funds allow commissioners to pick favorites, play politics, create fiefdoms and hold the school board hostage to blindsiding budget tactics.

Mike Evatt, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education, acknowledges that much of the discretionary funding does benefit schools, which is good since the department of education doesn’t pay for playgrounds, athletics facilities and other big-ticket items. But it also causes problems.

“I feel like if a school principal is lobbying a commissioner for a playground, … first, they bypass the board and they bypass the department of education. My opinion is if a school wants to build a playground, they need to come to the board before it’s funded. That keeps everybody in the loop,” he said.

But commissioners won’t give the money — or their clout — to the school board, “because then they wouldn’t have a say-so [over how the money is spent],” Evatt said.

Exactly. Taxpayers aren’t getting a say-so either, commissioners. And, like the folks running our schools, we’re “not in the loop” on where the money’s going. There also are equity issues. What about the schools you don’t pick? And what about elderly or childless taxpayers who don’t want their non-education share of property taxes going to support, for example, high school athletics.

Dick Williams, chairman of the nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause Tennessee, was generous when he termed the discretionary-fund practice “too loose,” especially in light of the fact that commissioners can let the money roll over from year to year.

“To allow them to set aside a certain amount of money and let it accumulate, then perhaps spend it all right before an election year, I think it’s too broad.”

It’s more than broad. It amounts to a slush fund that can be used to curry favor and support and, yes, votes.

This needs to change.

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fairmon said...

This practice is one example of how incumbents protect their power position and essentially buy votes to get elected again. When I made this same point in a prior article there was little comment in agreement or disagreement which is indicative of the apathy among voters and their misplaced trust in people to be responsible stewards of every tax dollar. This practice should be discontinued immediately or at the very least each commissioner give a public accounting annually of how they spent or carried over the funds.

September 20, 2013 at 12:13 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Agree, we the people have an expectation of integrity in government.

Like it or not, giving Hamilton County Commissioner $100,000 of taxpayer cashola to give to very political non-profits prior to an election has an appearance of impropriety.

Commission Boyd giving $13,000 for Gandhi speaking fees, $20,000 to Allied Art appears as buying political favor.

It is not as much about transparency, as it just needs to stop. No other city or county in Tennessee gives elected officials $100,000 annually to accumulate.

The problem is how do the voters make it stop. Those bubu's are not going to vote to take the funds away?

September 20, 2013 at 12:22 a.m.
soakya said...

aae1049 and fairmon, agree with the both of you, it needs to stop. people just aren't interested in holding politicians accountable at any level. as long as its their side of the aisle they don't care.

September 20, 2013 at 1:17 a.m.
gypsylady said...

This should be put up for a vote. More transparency doesn't cut it(and they've all had time to make it transparent.) If you go to the archives and read their candidate interviews I think most of them bleated something out about transparency. Soakya is absolutely right. Many people don't care as long as the candidates have the appropriate letter by their name. But, there are more and more of us who don't care who it is, don't care about parties, we abhor misuse of funds.

September 21, 2013 at 3:37 p.m.
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