published Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Hamilton County Commission endorsements

In a few months, Hamilton County will have at least one new face on its nine-member county commission. Potentially — though not likely — there could be as many as seven new faces on the commission. Today, the newspaper’s two editorial pages begin a week of endorsements.

It’s time for change in Hamilton County

And perhaps the beginning of that change might be Randy Fairbanks, a certified public accountant who hopes to unseat longtime District 1 Commissioner Fred Skillern.

Skillern is the man who, as commission chairman, recently asked the county mayor not to announce publicly his recommendations for new schools or school additions. Instead, Skillern asked the county mayor to meet privately with each county commissioner. Ultimately, four schools got $48 million in new facility money. Two did not. And the public had no opportunity to hear discussions of either funding or needs — let alone the commissioners’ thinking in their decisions. Skillern blamed the mayor and school officials, saying commissioners were not given enough information for pre-decision discussion.

Fairbanks says with 60 percent of Hamilton County’s budget going to education, commissioners — especially the commissioner of District 1, which covers roughly a third of the county in the extreme northwest corner — should be more accessible to the public.

We agree. What’s more, while Skillern has always been conservative with a dollar, Fairbanks’ eye for dollars and fiscal analysis would offer a closer inspection of whether Hamilton County might just be too proud of its $105 million reserve fund. Certainly we should have a reserve fund: It helps the county have a AAA bond rating, which means lower interest rates on borrowed money. But the county also had a AAA rating when the reserve fund was $85 million three years ago, according to newspaper archives. Excess money sitting in a bank is wasted if we’re borrowing money needlessly or putting off needed new schools until they will be more costly.

Then there’s the commissioner’s expenditure — or hoarding — of his district’s $100,000-a-year discretionary fund. Skillern historically has kept a large balance in the fund. As of the end of March, Skillern’s balance was $361,431, according to county records. That’s money that isn’t going toward fixing some need.

“Taxes are collected to spend. Our job is spend the tax dollars wisely, not to keep it (locked up),” Fairbanks said, adding that he believes county residents have plenty of good ideas about how to use those dollars if their commissioner would just talk to them — both during meetings and out in the community.

Fairbanks has the expertise to run budget numbers down without being afraid to let county residents in on the process. He also is community minded. He is a longtime TSSAA football referee, an alumnus of Leadership Chattanooga and has sought votes to serve in elected office before.

Skillern has given years of good service to the county. He was appointed to the County Commission in January 2001 and since has won election to three four-year terms. Before that, he served on the county school board off and on since 1976. It’s time, however, for someone new.

We endorse Fairbanks.

District 2 (Unopposed)

Jim Fields

Commissioner James A. “Jim” Fields, who represents Signal Mountain and other areas along the western border of Hamilton County, is unopposed in the May 6 Hamilton County primary election.

Voters first elected Fields, a Republican, in August 2010. He is an attorney and a partner in the law firm Fields & Moss.

In September, he was elected Hamilton County commission vice chairman. He also serves as the chairman of the commission’s legal committee.

Fields is a supporter of the county’s right to have prayers before meetings.

District 3 (Unopposed)

Marty Haynes

Lifetime Hixson native Marty Haynes won a special election in 2012 to represent Hixson and Middle Valley. He won 82 percent of the vote that year, and is unopposed this year.

Haynes, a Republican, a Hixson High School booster and Porter Warner industrial salesman, took the commission seat of now-Mayor Jim Coppinger.

He listened to constituents in February and changed his vote to reverse a commission decision to allow sheriff deputies to video and cite speeding drivers without pulling them over, and he was behind a move to post online an accounting of how commissioners spend nearly $1 million annually at their discretion — $100,000 each in discretionary funds. He also campaigned for a new school to serve Ganns Middle Valley.

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