County's time to grow up

County's time to grow up

April 24th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Twenty-one years ago, Hamilton County voters narrowly defeated a ballot measure that would have bestowed Home Rule authority to county government. The defeat, it was learned too late, apparently occurred because a third of the voters - the total turnout was just 53,568 - confused the misplaced referendum language as part of the instructions at the top and couldn't find the referendum on the ballot.

That was a grave mistake. Had the referendum passed, it would have granted county government the ability to respond to the rising public needs of our urbanizing county by adopting ordinances, regulations and public services like those allowed to the county's 10 municipalities under their founding charters. But because the referendum failed, county government still must rely on the county's legislative delegation to push private acts through the Legislature to empower the county to do just a smidgen of the things it needs to cope with growth.

The balky, part-time Legislature doesn't work well for county governments. It's too tedious and takes too long to get state legislators to respond to county needs. Worse, many lawmakers want to keep county governments in a perpetual supplicant status.

Limited power vs Home Rule

Because it lacks municipal-style authority, however, county government can't create and enforce the sanitation, safety, code and regulatory systems it needs to modernize its operations and to protect and advance the public interest. It can't even hang a traffic light without state permission. It can't organize garbage service, or create ordinances to abate public nuisances, to control signs, to set certain standards for buildings, to provide needed public services and codes.

This outmoded system, a throwback to the original state constitution's loose organization of counties as an arm of state government rather than a municipal-style government, keeps Hamilton and other growing counties hobbled on a leash to the Legislature in Nashville. Just two counties - Shelby and Knox - have obtained Home Rule. And only Nashville has moved beyond Home Rule to metro government.

A place on next ballot

It's long past time for Hamilton County to plot a course to a broader, more coherent, truly grass-roots style of government, either through Home Rule or the adoption of a county charter. A new referendum for that should be on the next countywide ballot, and a commission and planning for it begun now. Now.

That doesn't have to lead to metro government; the wisdom of that option will occur later, on its own, in the wake of the growth that is about to fundamentally reshape Hamilton County's demographics, congestion, sprawl, incoherence and inherent need for smart growth - which just means orderly, cost-efficient growth.

Think: Sewers before pavement. Schools on the drawing board before farms are rezoned to R-1 residential subdivisions. Impact fees for green-field developers in the outlying areas of the county, while suburban classrooms sit empty and usable schools are closed. Parks, sidewalks and commercial clusters before strip-zoning arteries and giant billboards.

Tax equity a must

The initial issues that are driving county government to modernize, however, are already apparent. Even as county officials flee responsibility and fair taxes for equitable funding of core countywide services, the dynamic driving a transformation to Home Rule is already shifting the ground under them.

The leading marker is the city of Chattanooga's seemingly sudden insistence on letting the local-option sales tax agreement lapse. This is not actually sudden: After 45 years, city leaders have finally tired of paying double for countywide programs and services that truly belong wholly at the county's doorstep.

City shouldn't pay twice

In every city-county funding split, city taxpayers have paid twice: once through their county property taxes, and again through their city taxes. Because Chattanooga residents represent fully half of the county's 340,000 population, and because the city has roughly 80 percent of the county's commercial tax base, city taxpayers actually have paid about 80 percent of the costs of so-called 50-50 splits with county government, leaving the other half of the county's population in smaller municipalities and the unincorporated areas paying a light-duty 20 percent.

Just paying their regular county property taxes would leave city taxpayers paying 58-percent of countywide funding for anything that county government pays for. The local taxpayer inequity of double payments for city residents couldn't continue, shouldn't continue.

County leaders can't hide

That being the case, county government cannot responsibly escape its funding duty for the agencies previously supported under the sales tax agreement. They have been funded for a reason: Their services are vital to our civic well-being.

It now falls to the county to step up its property tax rate, if necessary, to meet the county's long underfunded budget responsibilities. Since it's also now robbing the countywide school system of in-lieu-of-property-tax payments originally designated for schools from Volkswagen-related growth, it also must consider a tax increase sufficient to properly fund the countywide school system, which faces a $14 million shortfall.

The bulk of that shortfall, to be sure, owes to the state's failure to fund the second $12 million installment of the reconstituted BEP funding that was begun by Gov. Phil Bredesen and halted when the Great Recession hit.

Fairness requires courage

County officials are balking at these responsibilities because they aren't accustomed to assertively leading and financing their full responsibilities. But they can't wait much longer. County residents need much more than the county's traditional us-vs.-them, city-vs.-county dodge.

County officials must see the need for charter or home rule authority to establish the level of services - full-time fire department service, sewer improvements, garbage service and municipal ordinances - to provide the infrastructure for the rapidly urbanizing neighborhoods in the unincorporated areas of the county, and to assume their rightful countywide responsibilities.

Efficiency in growth planning

They should also accept and finally fund the countywide growth planning proposal that is needed to provide organized, cost-efficient infrastructure growth in the wake of the boom that is just beginning in the post-VW/Alstom/Wacker/Amazon era. It's been three years since that growth boom was signaled, and county government is just now searching for funding partners to begin planning for growth. This is a shameful abrogation of responsibility, and it's certain to compound future infrastructure costs. What a waste of money and time.

The county - and the metro region beyond - needs alert, energetic, engaged, capable and forward-looking leadership and growth planning from countywide government. This is urgent. It's time for county government grow up, and lead.