Scapegoating the city

Scapegoating the city

June 17th, 2011 in Opinion Times

County Mayor Jim Coppinger has signaled for weeks that he would use the city's decision to let a sales tax agreement expire as an excuse to slash funding for a score of vital civic agencies and the county health department. Sure enough, that's precisely where he falsely laid the blame - on the city - for over half of the $13.7 million in cuts, and 37 lost jobs, that he unveiled in his proposed budget for county government's new fiscal year.

Blaming the loss of the sales tax agreement is a bogus argument. Coppinger's proposed budget fudges the figures.

Follow the money. Until this year, the county had been allowed to distribute $10.5 million in city sales tax revenue to a core group of 10 necessary civic agencies. These included Erlanger (for a fraction of its indigent care), the public library, Chambliss Children's Home, the Joe Johnson Mental Health Center and the Regional Planning Agency.

The city, however, will continue spending more than $6 million of that same money to subsidize several of these first-tier entities. It will fully fund the library and the RPA. That leaves the tier 1 group of supported agencies losing around $4 million from the city sales tax revenue, not the $10.5 million in funding that county officials keep saying.

In addition, the county was spending an additional $3 million over and above the $10.5 million in sales tax proceeds to help a second tier group of smaller public-services agencies. Now Coppinger proposes to zero out funding for the second tier, which covers around 20 smaller agencies. The disastrous result is a net loss of $7.2 million that had gone to supported civic groups - all of which should be funded by county government through its countywide property tax base.

The county's shell-game loss is unconscionable. As always, county government is doing less than its fair share for countywide services, while the city does more than its share.

The agencies that will lose all county funding under the proposed budget include the Speech and Hearing Center; Chambliss Children's Home and Shelter; the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults; Fortwood Center; Johnson Mental Health Center; Orange Grove; Team Evaluation; the Children's Advocacy Center; Aim Center, Signal Centers; Alexian Senior Neighbors; and the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition.

These agencies provide crucial aid to broken families, to abused children and mothers, to the mentally ill and the handicapped. The people they help come from all over the county. Ending funding for them is heartless and truly tragic. It literally will increase undue pain on our most vulnerable citizens, and will diminish us all.

Other agencies that would lose county funding include WTCI Public television, Friends of Moccasin Bend (Park), Allied Arts, the Urban League, Regional History Museum, the River City Co., the African-American Museum/Bessie Smith Hall. All these are critical to the civic and social fabric that nurtures the cultural spirit of the community, and boosts the community's growth and appeal to visitors and new businesses.

County officials are simply wrong to blame the city for finally reclaiming its sales tax revenue. The expired sales tax agreement wrongly left city taxpayers paying double for countywide agencies - first through their countywide property taxes, and then through their sales tax revenue - while the other half of the county's residents got off with paying just half of their fair share.

Coppinger apparently wants to be seen as taking a bold stand against spending and a tax increase. But his budget reveals a weak leader. Because growth always costs more than the new tax revenue it produces, the county has traditionally raised taxes, albeit modestly, every four years. The last tax increase was in 2007; one is due this year. If they were good and brave leaders, county officials would kill the cuts and rise to the tax challenge. If the cuts stand, the entire county will be poorer for it, not better.