County commissioners are budgeted $100,000 apiece annually to spend on school buildings, projects or nonprofit organizations in the county. If they don't spend it all, they can keep it for future years. Commissioners vote on discretionary purchases only when price tags for projects exceed $15,000, which triggers state purchasing rules.
And according to state consultants, Hamilton is the only county in Tennessee that allows individual commissioners to personally direct more than $5,000 in public money per year
Every parent and student at East Ridge High School knows who Curtis D. Adams is. His name is on the arts building.
And a short distance away, anyone driving by East Ridge Middle School can read a message on its brand new digital sign: "Thanks Tim Boyd for this sign."
Orchard Knob Elementary has Warren Mackey's name, along with others, permanently etched on stone benches outside the building.
How did these past and current Hamilton County commissioners -- all of whom are candidates in this election year -- get such public recognition? By directing taxpayer-funded discretionary money toward school projects.
It's common for county and city politicians to have their names on numerous government and school buildings. The difference: Most of them are dead -- or not trying to get re-elected.
Dick Williams, state chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group, says such public thank-yous to politicians who are using the public's dime are basically taxpayer-funded campaign signs.
"I think it really is a blatant -- not illegal -- but inappropriate campaign sign," he said. "The school could express thanks or whatever, but putting it on a permanent sign is of questionable appropriateness."
But the commissioners and candidates don't think so.
Boyd, the District 8 commissioner, said Friday he has not seen the message on the digital sign and didn't ask for his name to be placed on it. But he said he didn't think it was out of line given his prolific competitor, former Commissioner Curtis Adams.
"I've been by the sign several times, and I hadn't seen anything but the information about testing and breaks. I appreciate it, though. I think a little recognition is OK. My opponent has a building named after him and his name permanently displayed," Boyd said.
"I don't think it's at all wrong for a school principal or any organization to thank a commissioner for the work they've done to help fund something that wasn't budgeted by the board of education," he said.
The message on the digital sign is not permanent and could be deactivated, he said.
Adams said he directed more than $1.1 million in discretionary funds to District 8 over three terms when he was commissioner. When East Ridge High School decided to name its arts center after him, he was only humbled.
"You don't ask anybody to do that," Adams said. "I never did consider it a campaign thing, but everything you do is a campaign thing, good or bad, really," Adams said.
East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert, who is campaigning for the District 8 commission seat against Boyd and Adams in the Republican primary, expressed concerns about the public signs. Both of his Republican opponents have been in a position to spend the funds, but he hasn't.
"That's really my tax dollars being used against me. And I think that's not quite fair," he said. "But it's not going to deter me from trying."
Mackey also defended the benches he bought for Orchard Knob. And he said he got the idea to put his name on them from Adams.
"My good old friend Curtis Adams, he taught me an important lesson. And that is, your constituents want to know what you've done for them. With the schools, once the principal leaves, no one knows who helped them," Mackey said.
"It's one of those necessary evils that you have to do to make sure people know what you are doing for them," he said.
Most government buildings have plaques listing the names of politicians and residents who helped build them, he added.
Williams said signs and building names are only one aspect of how discretionary funds can tilt the scales in an election year. A commissioner directing money to pay for a ballfield in midterm is not the same as a ballfield paid for during an election year.
That's money political challengers don't have access to, and the practice of discretionary spending blurs the line between standard commission work and campaign finance, he said.
"If they save it up and spend it before an election, it's basically helping their campaign," Williams said. "But I think voters can factor that in when they are deciding to re-elect somebody -- whether they are spending money in the community's interest or for election."
Hamilton County commissioners decided in October to begin posting online information about how they spend the combined $900,000 a year. But Williams said the funds deserve more scrutiny.
Seven of the nine commissioners have contested elections this year -- either in the May 6 primaries or the Aug. 7 general election.
And combined, those seven have directed more than $770,000 from their funds since July. More than $165,000 has been spent in the past five months.
Commissioners Boyd, Greg Beck, Mackey and Fred Skillern face primary contests. Commissioners Chester Bankston and Joe Graham have declared opponents in the general election. Commissioner Larry Henry isn't seeking to keep his commission spot, but he is facing two Republicans in the countywide Hamilton County Circuit Court clerk race.
Since late October, Skillern has spent $54,997 -- more than any of his fellow commissioners in that time frame. But Skillern is at the bottom of the list for the fiscal year. Since July, he's spent $64,297, leaving more than $360,000 in his account.
Skillern says anyone who checks his report can see he's not buying votes.
"If I was going to use it for political purposes, I wouldn't have $300,000 in there," Skillern said.
Skillern said 90 percent of his money goes to all of the schools and volunteer fire halls in District 1. Most of his funds this year are already committed. And he said he's for limiting commissioners to spending money only on government property for projects that will last at least 15 years.
"Quite frankly, I wish we had different ground rules," he said.
Boyd has cleared his fund, spending $156,550 since July and $31,540 since October.
He said he has intentionally slowed spending down as campaign season approached.
"That $31,000 I think it was spent at two or three schools and that money was committed to them earlier in the year. I consciously tried to get all that done before the new year, before the campaign season."
Boyd said he would vote to limit discretionary spending during election time.
"I wouldn't be opposed to having a moratorium six months ahead of the primaries, or election. Then you kind of take that leverage from the campaign," he said.
Boyd's most recent expenses have been in $5,000 increments: an autoclave for the Chattanooga Zoo; the U.C. Foundation; Chattanooga State Community College for a Latino outreach program; Barger Academy of Fine Arts and others.
Third in spending since October is Mackey, who has spent $27,576. That's about a third of the $82,802 he's spent since July.
"Most of the programs I've supported have been youth-oriented. A lot of them are going to have scholarship programs and other programs that are going to help youth in our community," Mackey said.
Mackey's most recent expenditures have been allocations ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to various community groups such as the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, Churchville Neighborhood Association, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and others.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm happy and pleased and proud of the organizations I've supported," he said. "The needs in my district are so huge, and the purposes are good. I do everything I can moneywise and otherwise to encourage these organizations."
Still, other candidates say the whole discretionary fund system is bogus.
Phil Smartt, who is seeking the District 7 commission seat being vacated by Henry, says the program needs to be scrapped.
"I'm totally opposed to it, and I'm the only one who is opposed to it. It's called an earmark and it buys votes," Smartt said.
He said a moratorium during election season doesn't cut it.
"Whether they spend in July or they spend in October, it doesn't matter. It buys votes," Smartt said.
Smartt is facing Republicans Sabrena Turner and Perry Perkins in the May 6 primary.
Both have said they approve of the program, but that all spending needs to be scrutinized.
Lambert said abolishing the practice might be too much. But he did call for "system reforms."
"I'm not against setting aside a certain amount of money for each district, but I would like to see the entire commission vote on things like that, so one person can't say, 'Look what I did for East Ridge Middle School' when it really wasn't their money to spend," Lambert said.
He also said the funds shouldn't roll over year to year.
Mayor Jim Coppinger could not say Friday whether the $900,000 in discretionary funds would be included in the upcoming budget, saying, "It's too premature to discuss."
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6481.