Layoffs couldn't be avoided, county says

Layoffs couldn't be avoided, county says

June 26th, 2011 by Cliff Hightower in News


Hamilton County commissioners are expected to vote on the 2012 budget Thursday. The commission meets at 9:30 a.m. on the fourth floor of the county courthouse.


• Supported agencies: $7.3 million

• Additional sales tax cuts: $4.3 million

• Debt service: $1.4 million

• Miscellaneous departmental decreases: $885,000

• Corrections Corporation of America: $344,455

Source: Hamilton County

Pamela Hilton was sitting at her desk in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department when she got the email.

It said for her to be at Hamilton County Wellness Center the next day - June 15. It was the same day the 50-year-old grandmother normally took off to reflect on her daughter, who was murdered in East Ridge on that day 11 years ago.

But she knew right away that the anniversary of her daughter's death would also be the day the county laid her off.

"My [being let go] from the Health Department was a double whammy," she said.

Thirty-seven county employees were laid off on June 15 and 20 positions were left vacant to offset budget cuts. County records show the layoffs will save about $2.8 million.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said it was one of his "darkest days."

But the cuts had to be made after revenue sources deteriorated, especially after losing $10.3 million when a 45-year-old sales tax agreement between the city and county expired last month, said County Finance Director Louis Wright.

The agreement spelled out how the city and the county broke down their financial responsibilities for agencies jointly funded by the pair. The $10.3 million is the county's share of sales tax under the agreement.

Besides that loss, the county saw reductions of more than $800,000 in state grants and another $800,000 in miscellaneous funds, he said. Some other revenues grew slightly, but not enough to offset the reductions, Wright said.

The county used $4.8 million from the general fund to help pay for agencies once supported by the sales tax agreement - Erlanger hospital, Hamilton County Emergency Services and a portion for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, Wright said.

"Previously, we had money from the sales tax to help pay," he said. "Now it's coming from the general fund."

But the cuts went all around. Programs and people were slashed from general government - human services lost 19 employees; public works lost one employee and six positions will go unfilled. The health department lost 14 employees.

Coppinger said he told county administrators in February to stop hiring because he knew there would be some unfilled positions in the budget.

"We saw this coming," Coppinger said, adding that he was determined not to raise property taxes in the slow economy.

Wright said the cuts will help the county make it through another three to four years without raising property taxes. He said he doesn't see the economy improving much in that time, and the county doesn't want to increase burdens on its residents.

"We've realistically got to get several years down the road before we do a property tax increase," he said.

The cuts were spread across several departments because the administration didn't want to gut health department services, he said.

"We looked at where it would do the least amount of damage to our services," he said.

But there still is a human toll.

Hilton, who held a job in the health department issuing birth and death certificates, said that, since her daughter's death she has raised her daughter's son, who's now 15 years old.

She went to the county job fair on Monday and applied for six positions. Hilton hopes to have the qualifications to get work. It's hard not having a job, she said.

"I'm the type of person who gets up in the morning and says, 'I love my job,'" she said. "This really blew me away. Nothing cushions the blow."