A modest helping hand

A modest helping hand

June 29th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The budget slashing proposed by County Mayor Jim Coppinger, and likely to be adopted Thursday morning by the County Commission, won't just zero out funding for the county's most vital civic-service agencies. It will effectively bleed out the heart of county government here and the varied social services that have become a hallmark of compassion and aid in the times of need for so many families here.

The cuts will leave only the inert shell of bureaucratic functionality. The county will still fill potholes and resurface some roads, staff the jail and sheriff's patrol, replace street signs, keep the courthouse open and audit the constitutional offices that fill that space.

But it won't provide a dime's worth of social services for people and families in crisis or those with special needs, nor will it do anything to lift its constituents' spirits. In fact, it will effectively gut, for the first time in the memory of most residents here, the very services that show any broad concern for the well being of county government's constituents and taxpayers.

True, the county plans to still provide reduced funding for the state-mandated health department. But the cruel new budget would decimate the essential core of helpful social services that for long decades have demonstrated this county's compassionate spirit and constructive help in both immediate crises and long-term services. Alongside that, it will also gut funding for the half-dozen agencies under the Allied Arts umbrella that often unveil the first rays of artistic endeavor into the lives of our most disadvantaged children.

Many of the agencies that now seem destined to have their county funding completely terminated have been household names for years.

Think Orange Grove, the county's widely renowned center for intellectually handicapped children and adults, and the Joe Johnson and Fortwood mental health centers. Or the unique and valued services of the Chambliss Children's Home and Shelter, the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, and the Children's Advocacy Center, which collectively rescue, shelter and mentor children and families trapped in dire circumstances.

Add to these the services of the Speech and Hearing Center, the counseling and mentoring of Team Evaluation, the AIM Center and Signal Centers, and the restorative guidance of Chattanooga Endeavors and the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition.

There are no public alternatives to these agencies. The private non-profit entities that provide these crucial services exist from hand-to-mouth, in part through the goodwill of private donors who applaud their mission, and in part, until now, from an enlightened government that recognizes its social responsibility and the broader good of participating in the cycle of support for the services it can't offer on its own.

Members of the County Commission have not, in our memory, turned their back so completely to the community's social needs as they now contemplate doing. With a stunning $85 million fund balance, it isn't necessary at all. Still, Mayor Coppinger and commission members are wrongly blaming the loss of an inequitable sales tax split with the city for their inability to sustain essential services that always should have been funded under the countywide tax base.

This is absurd. If the fund balance is so sacrosanct, it would take a modest tax increase of barely a dime - less than 4 percent on a $2.76 tax rate that hasn't been bumped in four years - to keep these vital services alive. It would also take just a little heart - if there's any left in the cold bureaucracy of county government.