Cooper: Discretionary funds - again?

Cooper: Discretionary funds - again?

May 15th, 2018 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

The Chattanooga Ballet, shown during a performance at Erlanger hospital, received $5,000 from a Hamilton County commissioner's discretionary money this year.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

It's pretty simple, really. Either Hamilton County commissioners should have a discretionary fund or they shouldn't.

If they should, it ought to be clear what the fund is and clear that commission members can decide — under a set of rules — where the money can go.

If they shouldn't, commissioners should have to make a request for money from the county general fund when they believe it is warranted.

At issue is the request by commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks that Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger double the travel money for commissioners in the fiscal 2019 budget.

It's not that the commissioners are big travelers, though. It's that unused travel funds get rolled over at the end of the year and can be used as discretionary spending by commissioners.

Yes, discretionary spending. It's the same kind of fund Coppinger put an end to several years ago by zeroing it out of the budget, only to have commissioners vote to include it, then override Coppinger's veto of the budget to get the money back. The next year, he again didn't request any discretionary money but allowed commissioners to use a bond fund to seek only certain types of discretionary purchases.

Currently, commissioners each receive $12,500 a year for travel and office expenses in addition to their $23,128 salary. Whatever travel and office money is rolled over to the following year becomes discretionary funds. The 2019 budget request would double the annual travel/office amount to $25,000.

Neither the travel expenses nor the discretionary expenses are hidden. They're available for the public to see on the county website.

The problem with discretionary funds, now and in the past, isn't that they aren't going to worthy projects. For all intents and purposes, they are.

Fairbanks, for instance, gave $1,000 of his leftover travel funds to the Soddy-Daisy Food Bank. Jim Fields gave $9,000 to the Signal Mountain Lions charity fund. Sabrena Smedley gave $1,500 to the Medal of Honor Hall of Valor Museum History Foundation. Chester Bankston gave $3,300 to the Snowhill Recreation League.

We've said in the past, though, that discretionary funds — whether they go to worthy organizations or not — can be seen by the public as a vote-buying scheme. If you run Joe's Food Bank or direct the Fill In The Blank Recreation League, you want to keep your commissioner in office because he or she has thrown some funds your way. But what about the good work done by Jane's Food Bank and the Whatchamacallit Recreation League? They do good work, too, but have been shut out of funds.

The current rolled-over office funds don't meet all of the needs that are out there, but doubling the funds would sure help, some commmissioners would assert.

Coppinger already has said he will include the request from Fairbanks in the 2019 general budget request he will make Thursday.

Two commissioners, Joe Graham and Greg Martin, are on record against doubling the travel funds, but five votes can pass the budget. So unless the two get some unexpected help, the commissioners' future discretionary funds will increase.

Commissioner Tim Boyd supports funds for each commissioner but believes the commissioners ought to be up front with what they are doing.

"Let's just label them what it is," he told Times Free Press reporter Judy Walton, "and not try to confuse it with an expense account and just be open with the public."

Taxpayers, from whom the money comes, deserve at least that much. But is there a better way?

Could more capital money be given to the school district to take care of things like the Normal Park Lower School gymnasium, the Sale Creek High School softball field tarp, the Barger Academy playgrounds and the Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts acoustic blankets, all of which are being paid for by commissioners' discretionary funds?

Could volunteer fire departments be assisted directly from the general fund budget?

Should money for the Mary Walker Historical and Education Foundation and the Medal of Honor museum be divvied up by a citizens' group?

And how is it some nonprofit organizations are more worthy than others, or worthy of money in the first place?

We are fortunate in Hamilton County that our county rainy-day fund is full and that a county budget is flexible enough to include a doubling of travel money. But we'd like to see commissioners put their heads together and come up with a better system than one that supports the Chattanooga Ballet, Junior Achievement of Chattanooga and band instruments out of a fund that is supposed to pay for office expenses and conference travel.

Even though all the money can be traced, the system has a backdoor-politics feel to it.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com