Hamilton County officials, Tennessee legislators discuss 2012 state budget

Hamilton County officials, Tennessee legislators discuss 2012 state budget

December 6th, 2011 by Ansley Haman in News

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Document: Mayor's 2012 Legislative Priorities

Mayor's 2012 Legislative Priorities

As state legislators prepare to head to Nashville to cut 2012's state budget pie, Hamilton County officials asked Monday for bigger slices.

And if they can't get more money for schools, jails, roads and law enforcement, Mayor Jim Coppinger is asking that the General Assembly at least refrain from making new regulations without providing the necessary funding for implementing them.

County officials and the state legislative delegation discussed their plans Monday at their annual priorities meeting at the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

"You're probably saying, 'Great job, Jim, that's a good wish list you've got,'" Coppinger said, "but we're pleading with you not to be sending any unfunded mandates."

Acknowledging that he knows Tennessee is also in a fiscal pinch, Coppinger said the state hasn't been in the habit of requiring the counties to do things it doesn't fund. But he doesn't want it to begin passing the buck to local governments now.

Coppinger then asked the state delegation to request additional money for housing state inmates in county jails.

The state now provides $35 per day for housing inmates, but the actual cost to the county last year averaged $66.99 per inmate per day in the downtown jail and $44.95 at Silverdale, Coppinger said.

Local taxpayers make up the difference, he said.

"Our request is that there would be some kind of cost-of-living adjustment at the state level," he said.

Coppinger and Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith also asked the delegation to fund fully the Basic Education Program, the formula Tennessee uses to distribute school funding. Hamilton County's BEP is $12 million to $13 million short of being fully funded, Smith said.

County Clerk Bill Knowles asked for a centralized auto insurance database that would allow clerks' offices to check whether drivers were in compliance with state law requiring drivers to carry liability insurance before being able to register their vehicles.

"Presently it's being checked on the back side" if a driver has an accident or is stopped for another infraction, Knowles said.

Changing Tennessee law to create an electronic database similar to Georgia's would mean "if you don't have insurance, you wouldn't get a tag," he said.

Sheriff Jim Hammond asked for the state delegation, if it has the authority, to require telephone companies and wireless providers to maintain phone records for at least 60 days and in a more standardized fashion. Different companies store data for various periods of time and report it in different formats.

District Attorney Bill Cox proposed more funding to hire more and retain current prosecutors. State prosecutors are difficult to recruit and retain because "they're always enticed away by the private sector or U.S. Attorneys."

Cox pushed for a group crime bill that would raise the class for offenses committed by three or more people.

"We believe where groups of people are congregating together to commit a crime, they're more dangerous, they're emboldened," he said.

Such a statute would be easier to prove in court than current statutes, he said.

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, asked local officials to send any draft bills to members of the delegation.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, commended Knowles on his office's participation in the free voter ID upgrades for those with nonphoto licenses.

"We're going to do some other things to make sure people get those voter IDs and get them for free," McCormick said.

Contact staff writer Ansley Haman at ahaman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.