Cooper: Discretionary funds - again?

The Chattanooga Ballet, shown during a performance at Erlanger hospital, received $5,000 from a Hamilton County commissioner's discretionary money this year.

It's pretty simple, really. Either Hamilton County commissioners should have a discretionary fund or they shouldn't.

If they should, it ought to be clear what the fund is and clear that commission members can decide - under a set of rules - where the money can go.

If they shouldn't, commissioners should have to make a request for money from the county general fund when they believe it is warranted.

At issue is the request by commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks that Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger double the travel money for commissioners in the fiscal 2019 budget.

It's not that the commissioners are big travelers, though. It's that unused travel funds get rolled over at the end of the year and can be used as discretionary spending by commissioners.

Yes, discretionary spending. It's the same kind of fund Coppinger put an end to several years ago by zeroing it out of the budget, only to have commissioners vote to include it, then override Coppinger's veto of the budget to get the money back. The next year, he again didn't request any discretionary money but allowed commissioners to use a bond fund to seek only certain types of discretionary purchases.

Currently, commissioners each receive $12,500 a year for travel and office expenses in addition to their $23,128 salary. Whatever travel and office money is rolled over to the following year becomes discretionary funds. The 2019 budget request would double the annual travel/office amount to $25,000.

Neither the travel expenses nor the discretionary expenses are hidden. They're available for the public to see on the county website.

The problem with discretionary funds, now and in the past, isn't that they aren't going to worthy projects. For all intents and purposes, they are.

Fairbanks, for instance, gave $1,000 of his leftover travel funds to the Soddy-Daisy Food Bank. Jim Fields gave $9,000 to the Signal Mountain Lions charity fund. Sabrena Smedley gave $1,500 to the Medal of Honor Hall of Valor Museum History Foundation. Chester Bankston gave $3,300 to the Snowhill Recreation League.

We've said in the past, though, that discretionary funds - whether they go to worthy organizations or not - can be seen by the public as a vote-buying scheme. If you run Joe's Food Bank or direct the Fill In The Blank Recreation League, you want to keep your commissioner in office because he or she has thrown some funds your way. But what about the good work done by Jane's Food Bank and the Whatchamacallit Recreation League? They do good work, too, but have been shut out of funds.

The current rolled-over office funds don't meet all of the needs that are out there, but doubling the funds would sure help, some commmissioners would assert.

Coppinger already has said he will include the request from Fairbanks in the 2019 general budget request he will make Thursday.

Two commissioners, Joe Graham and Greg Martin, are on record against doubling the travel funds, but five votes can pass the budget. So unless the two get some unexpected help, the commissioners' future discretionary funds will increase.

Commissioner Tim Boyd supports funds for each commissioner but believes the commissioners ought to be up front with what they are doing.

"Let's just label them what it is," he told Times Free Press reporter Judy Walton, "and not try to confuse it with an expense account and just be open with the public."

Taxpayers, from whom the money comes, deserve at least that much. But is there a better way?

Could more capital money be given to the school district to take care of things like the Normal Park Lower School gymnasium, the Sale Creek High School softball field tarp, the Barger Academy playgrounds and the Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts acoustic blankets, all of which are being paid for by commissioners' discretionary funds?

Could volunteer fire departments be assisted directly from the general fund budget?

Should money for the Mary Walker Historical and Education Foundation and the Medal of Honor museum be divvied up by a citizens' group?

And how is it some nonprofit organizations are more worthy than others, or worthy of money in the first place?

We are fortunate in Hamilton County that our county rainy-day fund is full and that a county budget is flexible enough to include a doubling of travel money. But we'd like to see commissioners put their heads together and come up with a better system than one that supports the Chattanooga Ballet, Junior Achievement of Chattanooga and band instruments out of a fund that is supposed to pay for office expenses and conference travel.

Even though all the money can be traced, the system has a backdoor-politics feel to it.