There is something deeply disturbing about the way the Hamilton County Commission has for years been giving the county's nine commissioners $100,000 a year, nearly $1 million annually, to spend at their discretion within the county.
They can spend the money on school buildings, projects or nonprofit organizations. They also receive $8,000 for other undefined discretionary expenses. There are no votes on their "discretionary" spending, unless the price tag for a "project" exceeds $15,000.
Even more distressing, county officials have offered very little transparency about how the money has been spent, and when asked by Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon to provide a full historical record, he was told that would take considerable time to track.
Since commissioners began receiving discretionary money in 1981, a cumulative $8.2 million has been allocated from different pots of money and accounted for in different ways. When the practice started in 1981, commissioners shared just $70,000 a year, records show. Some older records are stored in several areas and not immediately accessible, officials told Brogdon.
But beyond transparency questions, the nearly $1 million spent yearly in discretionary funds allow commissioners to pick favorites, play politics, create fiefdoms and hold the school board hostage to blindsiding budget tactics.
Mike Evatt, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education, acknowledges that much of the discretionary funding does benefit schools, which is good since the department of education doesn't pay for playgrounds, athletics facilities and other big-ticket items. But it also causes problems.
"I feel like if a school principal is lobbying a commissioner for a playground, ... first, they bypass the board and they bypass the department of education. My opinion is if a school wants to build a playground, they need to come to the board before it's funded. That keeps everybody in the loop," he said.
But commissioners won't give the money - or their clout - to the school board, "because then they wouldn't have a say-so [over how the money is spent]," Evatt said.
Exactly. Taxpayers aren't getting a say-so either, commissioners. And, like the folks running our schools, we're "not in the loop" on where the money's going. There also are equity issues. What about the schools you don't pick? And what about elderly or childless taxpayers who don't want their non-education share of property taxes going to support, for example, high school athletics.
Dick Williams, chairman of the nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause Tennessee, was generous when he termed the discretionary-fund practice "too loose," especially in light of the fact that commissioners can let the money roll over from year to year.
"To allow them to set aside a certain amount of money and let it accumulate, then perhaps spend it all right before an election year, I think it's too broad."
It's more than broad. It amounts to a slush fund that can be used to curry favor and support and, yes, votes.
This needs to change.