Opinion: Winners, losers and odd turns for Chattanooga on the way to an approved Tennessee budget

State budgets usually put a little something in a lot of buckets, but some folks in Hamilton County may think they got shortchanged in the state's record fiscal 2023 financial blueprint. Others may not.

The $52.8 billion budget, for instance, includes $500 million in bonds to help Tennessee Titans team owners and Metro Nashville finance a new stadium and a $5 million grant to East Ridge for infrastructure related to the planned $200 million in housing and commercial development by Chattanooga Red Wolves owner Bob Martino. But it does not include a requested $20.8 million to help Chattanooga Lookouts owners finance a new stadium on former manufacturing land between Interstate 24 and South Broad Street.

Neither does it provide money for a new Clifton Hills Elementary School, which had been one of 14 schools in floodplains that Gov. Bill Lee had suggested relocating with a $200 million proposal.

The governor's impetus for the schools came after floodwaters killed 20 people and destroyed the elementary and middle schools in Waverly last August and caused hundreds of students to have to attend school in a repurposed warehouse.

The two schools weren't on the governor's list, but administration officials apparently expected federal disaster relief funds and insurance would cover the costs of those schools. Meanwhile, some legislators indicated there was confusion with the list of schools, with one argument that there was a larger list than 14 and one that the first list contained a school whose administrators were unaware it was in a floodplain.

Clifton Hills made the list because the school was built in the late 1960s - following a fire that damaged the original school in 1966 - on a four-square block, 14-acre swampy tract that has a large drainage ditch running through the property. Periodically since it was dedicated in 1968, flooding either has affected the property on which the school sits during ditch overflows or the roads around it, causing the school to have to temporarily close.

A comprehensive 2020 schools facilities study by MGT Consulting Group for the Hamilton County Board of Education mentioned the floodplain, did not recommend rebuilding on the site and suggested students be sent to another school or that another elementary be built elsewhere.

Legislators did not slight only Clifton Hills, though. They didn't fund the list at all, indicating there were too many questions and a lack of desire to get into the school building business. A Times Free Press news story said it appeared the money was shifted to the state's rainy day fund, which would grow to a record $1.8 billion.

Although the stadium contribution news wasn't as positive as that for Knoxville last year and Nashville and East Ridge this year, a bill continues to move through the legislature that would allow the Lookouts to keep the sales tax for the stadium (minus a portion for schools) in order to pay off bonds for the stadium's construction.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, told this page earlier this year and said in a news story last week that he expected such a bill to pass. However, some local legislators had been reluctant to get behind more money in the budget for a new Lookouts stadium without any additional pledge of local money from owners or investors.

Meanwhile, local legislators made some folks in Chattanooga mad and others happy in redirecting Lee's proposed $725,000 grant to Chattanooga's River City Co. for turning riverfront parking into potential development. The legislators felt - and we agree - that riverfront parking is necessary for many local events. The money was split equally and redirected to Clinica Medicos, which provides medical care to indigent clients, and to the Tivoli Foundation, which helps support the Tivoli Theatre.

Officials at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga are all smiles, though, as the budget largely funds a $60.8 million health sciences building and provides most of the $40 million needed in renovation of the 540 McCallie building (the former Interstate Life and Accident Insurance Co.).

And the budget also includes federal American Rescue Plan funds to help with the building of a new $276.5 million mental health hospital in Chattanooga. The governor's original plan was to rebuild the hospital on its current Moccasin Bend site, but we suggested in November an alternative site would be preferable in order to free up riverfront property to help complete the Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District. Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly made a similar statement in January, and now the state has agreed to consider alternative sites.

For those who didn't get funded, or funded at the level they expected, the good news is there's always another budget around the corner. And the legislature hasn't recessed yet.