Chattanooga leaders held a discussion Friday about cuts to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, but officials with the entity constitutionally responsible for funding it, the county, weren't in the room.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and Councilwoman Deborah Scott led a freewheeling, hourlong discussion with local health care professionals about the importance of health care locally, particularly for the homeless population.
The attendees discussed cooperation among local heath care providers such as Erlanger and Memorial hospitals and the health department, as well as work with various health clinics around the city. Littlefield said one of his main points was to try to get the county to understand that the area is becoming an urban community that is interconnected.
And while Littlefield said he wasn't there to point fingers or assign blame, he made it clear that Hamilton County wasn't taking care of its business.
"They can duck a meeting, but they can't duck a responsibility," Littlefield said.
That made County Mayor Jim Coppinger bristle. He said Littlefield knew he had a scheduling conflict when the meeting was set up, and he said Littlefield told him there would be nothing new to discuss.
"We understand our responsibility. We understand how important public health is," Coppinger said. "We are continuing through our budget process, and we're hoping to minimize any cuts that have to be made."
Health department Administrator Becky Barnes did not attend either, and a spokeswoman said Barnes also had a conflict. Commission Chairman Larry Henry, who also had meetings Friday, was offended by Littlefield's remarks.
"We didn't even find out about this until 48 hours ago," Henry said.
The city and county have been at odds since Littlefield said the city would not renew a decades-old sales tax agreement that transfers about $10.5 million to the county for jointly funded services.
Coppinger said losing the money would mean drastic cuts to the health department.
Littlefield and city officials say that's passing the buck.
Coppinger postponed a planned relocation of the Homeless Health Care Center, a joint venture with the city, as he studies the budget. The center would be paid for with a $2.7 million federal grant, but county officials say it will cost money to maintain it.
Doug Fisher, vice president of government affairs for Erlanger, said the two mayors should meet behind closed doors and work out their differences on the sales tax agreement. But that's unlikely to happen before the agreement expires May 23.
So what exactly did Friday's meeting accomplish?
"I guess the recognition from the medical community that we've all got to work together," Fisher said.
Rae Bond, executive director of the Medical Society of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, called the meeting a "really important dialogue."
"We learned more about partnerships. I think it was an important first step," Bond said.
Howard Roddy, vice president at Memorial Health Care System, spoke at length about the need for homeless health care services.
"It's all about collaboration because it's one community," he said.
Littlefield said people need to understand that spending money on health care is "an investment, not an expenditure."