Sohn: Looking for local leaders and finding some

Sohn: Looking for local leaders and finding some

June 16th, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Staff file photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press - Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent presents a school budget during the Hamilton County Commission last year.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

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Kudos to two Hamilton County commissioners who seem to be keeping an open mind about improved school funding, tax savings and improved transparency for county tax expenditures.

Commissioner Tim Boyd would like to see the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau — and other nonprofits that get significant shares of county public money — be required to use county procurement and travel policies as a way to ensure money there isn't wasted. It also could be one way to eventually move some of the money that county taxpayers cede to the bureau toward schools, either directly or indirectly.

And Commissioner Joe Graham on Wednesday suggested the commission revisit its recent discussion on what to do with the county's certified tax rate.

The state is expected to certify a new tax rate in August so that the county's recent property reappraisal will not — by law — result in more or less property tax revenue for Hamilton County. Local governments are not allowed to earn more tax dollars just because property values go up after a reappraisal. But county commissions can increase or lower the property tax rate after it approves the state-certified rate.

Graham voiced an interest in waiting to decide such a taxing question until the commission can talk with our new schools superintendent.

What a concept: Commissioners working to find ways to help our schools without repeating the sins and omissions — especially omissions — of the past.

It goes without saying that doing something in a way other than "what we've always done" is bound to rub some of us the wrong way. That's especially true when taxes are involved.

Boyd has been critical for weeks of the fact that the Convention and Visitors Bureau has a less-than-transparent spending pattern and its budget has gone up and up. But he also acknowledges that the CVB — which received 100 percent of the county's share of hotel-motel tax revenues for the last 10 years — does the county a great service. In 2017, the CVB spent $7.8 million (expected now to rise to $8.2 million in 2018), and it is projected to bring in $1.1 billion in tourism this year.

That's a great return. But the CVB's expenditures are considerably higher than similar Southeastern cities and counties — some of which bring in about the same amount of tourism revenue. In a time when commissioners are trying to fund other needs without raising taxes, Boyd has suggested revisions to the way our hotel/motel tax revenues are allocated.

On Wednesday, Boyd broadened the discussion by introducing a resolution to require any nonprofit organization that receives county money exceeding 25 percent of its annual operating budget to use county purchasing and travel policies, and have a county commissioner serve on its board.

"There shouldn't be any problem with an organization adopting either of those policies, and there shouldn't be any issue with a commissioner sitting on the board of those organizations receiving that significant amount of money," Boyd said.

The resolution also calls for affected organizations to annually provide copies of "all financial documents and records" related to income and expenses to the county commission. Boyd has previously pushed for the CVB to publicly release its financial "working papers," but CVB officials stymied that request for transparency, claiming those documents are protected under state law.

Joe Graham's tax suggestion ruffled the feathers of County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who voiced frustration because he had individual conversations with each commissioner before presenting the 2018 budget proposal — without a tax increase — last week.

An "overwhelming majority" of commissioners told him they could not support a tax increase or keeping the tax rate to its existing level, Coppinger said.

If the county commission keeps the existing property tax rate of $2.7652 per $100 of assessed value, it would bring in an estimated $25 million in additional revenue, officials have said. That's almost exactly the additional amount school officials and community groups say is needed for the schools.

Graham acknowledged that the mayor called him and they discussed it.

"I'll be the first to tell you that in the first phone call I had with the mayor, I was dead-set against it, because I didn't understand what we were talking about," he said. "This is something we can't just make a decision on a whim or a quick phone call."

Graham added that he does not necessarily advocate for making any tax rate adjustments. But he said he will present his colleagues with funding scenarios based on keeping the existing tax rate in the near future.

Is either idea from Boyd or Graham the perfect solution? Probably not.

But, by golly, voicing each is a step in the right direction. Each gives us hope that our county leadership is stepping up to truly put forth new ideas and examinations of our old ideas to find ways to grow Hamilton County — be it through tourism, schools or county government itself.

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