published Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Hamilton County budget boosts schools, safety; $672.5 million plan has employee raise, no tax increase

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    Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks in this file photo.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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Hamilton County Budget for 2015
Hamilton County Budget for 2015

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger's new $672.5 million budget could add eight new officers to the county jail and put 30 more patrol cars on the road, although Sheriff Jim Hammond says his department would continue to lag on both fronts.

Still, a 7.9 percent increase to public safety is one highlight of Coppinger's fourth budget, which includes a $5.5 million -- or 1.5 percent -- increase for county schools and a 2.5 percent raise for every county employee -- all without a property tax hike. To boot, the budget proposal limits how commissioners can disburse nearly $1 million a year in combined discretionary spending.

Coppinger presented the budget to commissioners Wednesday. It grew $7.2 million over the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The budget predicts 2 percent growth from property taxes and doesn't pull from the general fund balance. But the sheriff's office, the school system and Juvenile Court did reach into their own balances.

Hammond will see an extra $2.2 million for new jailers and new patrol cars. And the sheriff said Wednesday every little bit helps.

"It depends on whose perspective you are looking through," Hammond said. "The grand jury has consistently reported for years that we are between 20 and 25 men short at the jail. But any help is welcome out there."

And while 30 cars sounds like a lot, Hammond said he would need to replace about a quarter of his 250-car fleet -- or 62 cars -- each year to keep up.

But again, Hammond said he will take what he can get.

"I appreciate the mayor's diligence and feeling the pain that we have and keeping the people safe and secure out here," Hammond said.

With 59 percent of the budget -- more than $399 million -- going to the school system, Coppinger touted the budget as a fiscally conservative answer that bolstered education, although the school system got only what it was owed from growth in the county.

He said the county's employees deserved the 2.5 percent raise, because they have worked faithfully with what they have been given. County workers received a 3 percent raise in the 2013 fiscal year but no raise this year.

"Where the rubber hits the road is our employees," Coppinger told commissioners.

Coppinger also proposes to limit how commissioners spend their $100,000 discretionary allotments by requiring that funded projects meet bond requirements.

That means projects must be structures or equipment on public property used by the government or the public that will last at least 15 years, County Finance Administrator Al Kiser said. That means school playgrounds, fire halls, public parks and other similar projects. No more donations to nonprofits or community groups.

Despite a drawn-out budget spat last year, most commissioners Wednesday said they were pleased with what they saw initially.

Chairman Fred Skillern called the budget "the cleanest budget we've had." He even said he'd pass it on the spot Wednesday, if the others wanted to vote.

That was a sign to Greg Beck that it must be a good package.

"There's nobody who scrutinizes budgets like Fred Skillern, and the chairman has already put his seal of approval on it," Beck said after the meeting.

But Beck did express reservations about changing the way discretionary funds are spent. Citing institutions such as the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, Beck said some groups need the help.

"We also use those funds to help community groups that otherwise wouldn't have the money we give them," he said. "There are a lot of outreach groups, nonprofit groups, that we help that could be really affected by that change."

All the other commissioners asked were fine with limiting the funds.

Skillern, Beck, Joe Graham, Chester Bankston and Marty Haynes all said after the meeting that the budget looked good at first blush. Jim Fields declined to comment on it until he could study the 496-page document further.

Commissioners Tim Boyd and Warren Mackey were absent from Wednesday's meeting.

Commissioners have until June 25 to pass a budget. Coppinger said if an agreement isn't reached by then, the county would work on a continuation budget until one is passed.

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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