Hamilton County Commission praises, scolds budget presenters

Hamilton County Commission praises, scolds budget presenters

May 11th, 2011 by Dan Whisenhunt in Local - Breaking News

In a year when the county faces a $10.5 million loss from the end of a sales tax agreement with Chattanooga, Hamilton County commissioners had tough questions for some agencies during the second day of budget hearings.

Agencies jointly funded by the city and county got some added scrutiny from commissioners. It's still not certain whether the county will fund the Regional Planning Agency, Commissioner Fred Skillern said. Though RPA is asking the county for $1.2 million, $102,728 less than last year, the city is considering charging the county for handling RPA cases. Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said an exact rate has not been established.

"If we're going to be paying for it, we're going to be charging for any services," Beeland said.

Skillern said until the city decides what it wants to charge the county, he's reluctant to approve RPA funding. Mayor Ron Littlefield said even with county funding, the city still provides 58 percent of the money for RPA.

Tough questions

The Humane Educational Society found itself on the hot seat. The agency requested $407,113, an $11,858 increase over last year.

Commissioner Joe Graham asked Humane Educational Society Executive Director Guy Bilyeu why county commissioners representing urban districts should support the group. The agency does not operate in Chattanooga. The city supports the McKamey Animal Shelter.

Commissioners sounded unhappy with his answers.

"We're talking about being able to help a citizen who has a problem with a dog or cat hanging around," Beck said. "Will you come out to District 6 or District 5 or District 4 and help us out with animal problems?"

Bilyeu said the agency couldn't pick up animals, but could provide food and shelter.

Salaries

Commissioners asked several questions about raises and salaries. Choose Chattanooga, a local agency promoting relocation to the city, is budgeting about an $8,000 raise for its executive director, Linda Bennett. Under the new budget, Bennett's salary would be $65,000. The increase is included in the agency's $50,000 increase in its overall budget request.

Sherrie Gilchrist, executive director of the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce, did not list what her salary is in the agency's request and afterward said she did not know what her salary is.

Her last request to the County Commission listed her salary as $112,000, but tax forms filed by her organization list her salary as $131,484.

In other budget requests, commissioners questioned where exactly the money is going. The budget request for the downtown Riverpark includes a 43 percent increase in pension expenses for employees. Commissioner Tim Boyd said that was extraordinary.

"Gee whiz, 43 percent," Boyd said. "We haven't seen numbers in that order of magnitude this whole hearing."

Administrator of Finance Louis Wright said the information about the increase came from city officials, and he hadn't had a chance to analyze it.

The Chamber of Commerce and Erlanger hospital fared much better in the budget hearings. After Chamber CEO Tom Edd Wilson finished his presentation of the Chamber's $450,000 budget request, a $75,000 decrease, commissioners took turns praising the organization.

"I don't think our community fully grasps what all the Chamber does," county Mayor Jim Coppinger said.

Jim Brexler, CEO of Erlanger, received similar plaudits from commissioners, after he delivered a level $3 million funding request.

"What I like about Erlanger is the diverse care that you have and the entities that you cover," Graham said.

Coppinger called the hospital "phenomenal."

Contact Dan Whisenhunt at dwhisenhunt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DWhisenhunt.