Hamilton County Commission may open window on spending

Hamilton County Commission may open window on spending

September 26th, 2013 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Commissioners conduct business during a commission meeting in this file photo.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

ALSO WEDNESDAY

In other business commissioners:

• Agreed to consider matching a $100,419 grant with the state Department of Human Resources for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department to fund its child support program.

• Agreed to consider accepting a $17,927 contract with Leica Geosystems for a surveying unit to be used by the county's engineering and water quality departments.

• Agreed to consider a $156,352 bid from Beaman Automotive Group for seven two-wheel drive pickup trucks and a $24,415 contract with Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram of Columbia for one four-wheel drive pickup truck for county's highway and recreation departments.

• Agreed to consider letting the county to enter a contract with DentaQuest USA Insurance Company for county dental insurance.

If Hamilton County commissioners follow through on a discussion Wednesday, taxpayers soon will be able to keep close tabs on how the legislative body spends nearly $1 million in annual discretionary funds.

Making good on a nearly 2-year-old campaign promise, Commissioner Marty Haynes called during an agenda session for a resolution to post online information about what he and other commissioners do with a combined $900,000 in tax dollars a year. Commissioner Joe Graham said he would second such a motion.

Each commissioner gets $100,000 every year to spend on buildings, playgrounds, other projects or nonprofit organizations in the county. They may stockpile the funds and carry them over to future budget years. State and county purchasing rules require a commission vote only if the donation would be more than $15,000.

Hamilton County is the only government in the state that allows its elected commissioners to direct more than $5,000 a year. Good government groups and political science experts have called the practice too loose and prone to political influence.

Haynes said Wednesday he likes the policy, but it needs to be more transparent.

"I am not trying to do away with the program. I think the program is beneficial to all nine districts in Hamilton County," Haynes said. "We talk about transparency across the county. I think it's an opportunity to show leadership."

Chairman Fred Skillern, who had $301,000 in his fund as of June 30, said he supported changes to the discretionary spending policy. He called for quarterly reports detailing all expenditures from start of term to present for each commissioner. In an interview this month, Skillern also said spending should be limited to projects on county or municipal property -- cutting nonprofits out of the deal. That measure was not initially included in the motion Wednesday.

After Wednesday's meetings, Graham said he would support that measure, too.

"It's not my job as a county commissioner to give taxpayer dollars to professional fundraising organizations just because they are a 501(c)(3)," Graham said.

Graham would support abolishing the discretionary fund policy altogether, but he would like to see a way the commission could fund important projects, citing the recent renovation of the Lookout Valley football stadium.

"If we do get rid of discretionary funds, I'm OK with that. But how do you do all the projects, good projects, that we have done?" Graham said.

Along with Haynes, Graham and Skillern, other commissioners on the dais supported the call for transparency. Warren Mackey, Jim Fields and Larry Henry all said they would vote for the measure.

The full resolution is expected to appear on the Oct. 16 commission meeting agenda for a vote.

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