Budget in 'limbo' after Hamilton County Commission shoots down 34-cent tax rate increase for schools

A standing room only crowd listens to viewpoints on a tax increase inside the Hamilton County Commission room on Wednesday morning. / Staff photo by Tim Barber

Hamilton County's 2020 budget is in "limbo" after the county commission narrowly voted against the proposed 34-cent property tax rate increase on Wednesday.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger's proposed $819 million budget included a highly debated tax hike to benefit Hamilton County Schools, which drew crowds of supporters and opposition to the last several commission meetings, resulting in a 5-4 vote to kill the tax rate increase.

"The commission will need to wait on the school board now to respond," said County Attorney Rheubin Taylor after the meeting. "The whole budget has not and will not be approved until a new item is brought to the commission."

Earlier in the meeting, Taylor said that failing to approve the whole budget would put both the schools and county in fiscal "limbo."


How did the commissioners vote on the amendment to scrap the tax raise? And what have they said about it over the last few weeks?District 1 Commissioner Randy Fairbanks: Yes"I won't support a tax increase at all this year."District 2 Commissioner Chip Baker: No"I've heard from all sides - friends, foes and everything in between - this has become an all-or-nothing budget. I'm a conservative and I don't like asking for taxes, but I think now is the time when everyone is aligned."District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin: Yes"I believe going forward it's time for the school board and the county commission to work together ... Raising property taxes is not the only solution."District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey: No"It's time to do the right thing and have courage."District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter: No"Now is the time to do this."District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe: No"Do you support public education, accelerating student achievement and promoting economic growth in Hamilton County? If you do support those three things, it's a clear answer: You support this budget."District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Smedley: Yes"There's a lot as county commissioners that we have to consider. I was here in 2017, going into an election year, and voted for a tax increase. I was convinced at the time and I thought it was more important to do what's right."District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd: Yes"I am absolutely opposed to a tax increase. ... We're not a bank and we're not going to keep giving."District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston: Yes"I am absolutely against us passing any tax increase this year."

The school board will have to present new alternatives to the commission and the commission will have to approve an overall budget by Aug. 31.

Coppinger's original budget focused largely on public education, with $443 million for the district's proposed general purpose budget. The failed budget included a 5% raise for teachers and the addition of 14 school counselors, 15 social workers, 15 truancy officers (or "attendance specialists"), 11 art teachers, 10 special education teachers and 32 special education assistants.

The budget also included $59 million for the sheriff's office and a 2.5% pay raise for general government employees.

With two commissioners going into the meeting without publicly announcing their opinions, hundreds of citizens showed up to the courthouse to hear the fate of the controversial tax.

The meeting room was at double capacity with community members interested in the vote, with scores of other members of the public waiting in the courthouse halls once the meeting room was closed off.

Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley gave 20 combined minutes to all citizens in favor and 20 minutes to all opposed to the budget, with both sides going slightly over time with appeals similar to those in previous meetings.

One supporter was school board member Joe Smith, of District 3, who said the severity of issues faced by children at home necessitates additional support staff in schools, and consequently the budget.

"When I was a little boy, my monsters were pretend. A lot of these kids, their monsters are real," Smith said, adding he was "haunted" by how many students in the county are underprivileged.

The opposition largely questioned the need for such an increase.

"After this, we need to prioritize where we go together because we have to go forward one way or the other," said Brendon Jennings of the Chattanooga Tea Party.

Craig McGarvey, a resident and former educator, urged commissioners to reject the increase.

"The school's budget should be rejected because of the large permanent tax burden it will create," he said.

District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston moved to amend the proposed budget to remove the tax hike. The amendment was seconded by District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd and supported by District 1 Commissioner Randy Fairbanks, District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin and Smedley, of District 7.

"I believe going forward it's the time for the school board and the county commission to work together," Martin, who had withheld his opinion on the budget prior to the meeting, said before supporting the amendment. "Raising the property tax is not the only solution."

District 2 Commissioner Chip Baker, District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey, District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter and District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe, all of whom favored the tax increase, voted against the amendment.

photo An overflow crowd from the Hamilton County Commission room fills the fourth-floor of the courthouse rotunda to express their opinion on a tax increase for schools.

"I've heard from all sides - friends, foes and everyone in between," Baker, who had not previously shared his stance on the budget, said before supporting the budget. "I'm a conservative and I don't like asking for taxes, but I think now is the time when everyone is aligned."

The commission also voted 5-3, with Fairbanks out, against Sharpe's proposed amendment to state law to increase the maximum household income for senior citizens in the state tax relief program from about $29,000 to $40,000.

After the vote, Sharpe called the outcome "unusual and disappointing."

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