Hamilton County Commission approves revised 2020 budget

The Hamilton County seal is seen in the County Commission assembly room at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

After a dramatic budget season, the Hamilton County Commission voted to approve a balanced revised Fiscal Year 2020 budget Wednesday.

The $794 million budget passed 8-1, with District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey dissenting, after two amendments to provide additional funding for teacher raises failed.

The original budget proposed a highly controversial 34-cent property tax rate increase to benefit Hamilton County Schools. The tax increase was the only unbalanced part of the budget, proposed by Mayor Jim Coppinger, and was criticized and narrowly blocked by five commissioners on June 26.

Last week, the school board presented a revised budget to the commission that does not require a tax increase but does make substantial cuts to the original request, including the removal of a 5% pay raise for teachers.


YES Randy Fairbanks, District 1 Chip Baker, District 2 Greg Martin, District 3 Katherlyn Geter, District 5 David Sharpe, District 6 Sabrena Smedley, District 7 Tim Boyd, District 8 Chester Bankston, District 9 NO Warren Mackey, District 4

Amendments to increase teacher pay with smaller property tax rate increases failed during Wednesday's meeting, despite pleas for teacher raises by commissioners during the process.

Mackey proposed the first amendment, suggesting a 12.5-cent property tax rate increase to provide additional funding for the Hamilton County Schools' operational budget, earmarked for teacher raises.

"To achieve this pay increase, if a person's property was valued at $100,000, they would pay $2.60 more per month," Mackey said. "What's pretty clear to those who desire to see economic growth in Hamilton County is that we've had a leadership problem. One obvious source of this leadership shortage is how the schools are so woefully behind."

When the amendment failed, Mackey said he feared for the future of schools, both operationally and in terms of facility improvements, referencing the recently released preliminary facilities audit that calls for more than $1.3 billion in school improvements.

"People are saying they can't afford $2.60 per month," Mackey said, advocating for the increase. "I'm afraid of what's going to happen when we start looking at needing to build new schools. The money won't be there."

"I will not be able to support the [amendment] today," District 1 Commissioner Randy Fairbanks said. "The first reason is, during the meetings I had with people in District 1, they loudly and clearly said to me that they could not weather a tax increase two years after the [last] one."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Commissioners spar over Chattanooga Business Improvement District fee collection agreement)

Fairbanks was not alone as other commissioners who had expressed support for teacher pay raises voted against the amended version.

"This [commission] did not cut the teacher pay increase," Chairwoman Sabrina Smedley said, asking the district's chief business officer, Brent Goldberg, and school board member Kathy Lennon why the raises were not budgeted into the revised proposal, without the tax. "That could have been provided from the additional growth money. It was a priority that you all [set] through collaborative conferencing and all that we've heard about. This commission did not forgo the teacher pay increase."

Lennon told the commission that the decision was made to prioritize classrooms after the commission denied the original tax increase.

Boyd, who has been consistently critical of the school board and Lennon, attributed the divide between the commission and school board to the school board, saying the issues were "rooted at Bonny Oaks and not in these courthouse chambers."

The adopted $418 million education budget includes $19 million in growth money from increased local tax revenue and other projected revenue increases. It also budgets about $8 million from the district's fund balance to pay for a one-time bonus for teachers, instead of a 2.5% pay raise originally included in the first revised budget proposal.

Though District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd said the choice to use some of the budget to provide bonuses for all full-time employees was "poor, poor stewardship," he supported the budget.

After the failure of an amendment by District 2 Commissioner Chip Baker to levy a 4-cent property tax rate increase to provide $4 million for raises, Boyd suggested taking the money from the county general fund.

Coppinger called the idea "horrible," because raises would be a recurring operating expense and should not be funded from the general purpose fund.

Ultimately, with all other amendments failing, the commission voted, with the exception of Mackey, to approve the revised budget.

"There has not been any tax increase on the public for the county general government to operate or for the schools to operate in well over a decade, " Coppinger said. "I say this because, again, people that are out there that are really upset about requests for property taxes need to understand that we've held out on taxes."

After the meeting, Coppinger clarified that his statement was not "political" or a threat of a future tax increase proposal, but rather just a wake up call to people who were "too adamantly" against any kind of property tax increase.

Aside from changes to the schools request, the new budget remains the same as the balanced request praised by commissioners in June, which does not raise taxes and gives preference to public safety with a 6.4% increase of more than a $3.5 million in the sheriff's budget.

The county was supposed to have passed the budget by the end of June, but, per state law, was forced into a continuation budget when it failed. The budget adopted Wednesday is retroactively effective July 1, the start of the fiscal year.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at staylor@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.