Commissioners open the door to stacks of cash

Staff photo by John RawlstonCommissioner Chester Bankston, center, proposes restoring discretionary funds to the fiscal 2016 Hamilton County budget last week. His fellow commissioners Jim Fields, left, and Tim Boyd, right, joined him and three other commissioners in the vote and in Wednesday's override of Mayor Jim Coppinger's veto of the budget.

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The door is now wide open.

Hamilton County commissioners - at least six of the nine - have given notice that they're willing to access a huge stash of cash if they see fit.

They made their proclamation loud and proud Wednesday when they voted to override County Mayor Jim Coppinger's veto of the fiscal 2016 county budget that they had amended by taking $900,000 from the county's savings for their own discretionary spending.

The action is a horrible precedent by any commissioners who consider themselves fiscal conservatives - and five of the six ran as Republicans; it demeans the hard work done by Coppinger, county financial officials and outside auditors who said the county couldn't afford the discretionary funds; and it bodes for a poor working relationship between the mayor and commissioners.

Afterward, commissioners tried to rationalize their votes by citing the good the funds do, the public's after-the-fact awareness of their spending and the suggestion the discretionary money couldn't be a vote-buying scheme because occasionally a commissioner who spends funds loses a re-election race.

None of those excuses make up for the fund-grab, though, since commissioners knew every expenditure that will be made with the funds in the coming year could have come before the commission and been debated in the light of day. Taxpayers could at least see where their money is going before it's spent.

And the argument has never been whether the commissioners are misspending discretionary funds. They're not. Anyone who checks the 2014-2015 spending by each commissioner would be hard-pressed to point to more than one or two items that didn't help schools, recreation centers or neighborhoods.

No, in this case, it's about commissioners living within their means, like their constituents have to do, or asking for their fellow commissioners to approve an expenditure they believe their district could not live without for another year.

But it's also a little scary to ponder that commissioners have set a precedent that a nearly $100 million savings fund is out there and needs just five votes - a majority on the commission - to tap. Anytime they want.