Opinion: Hamilton County mayor’s non-signature on $50,000 commission-approved resolution for homeless families perplexing

Staff File Photo by Robin Rudd / The Hamilton County Commission is pictured on Dec. 14, when its members voted unanimously to join the city of Chattanooga in a memorandum to provide $50,000 each to help pay for housing for those put out of the Budgetel Inn in East Ridge in November.

If the mid-December debate about the Hamilton County Commission spending $50,000 to assist residents suddenly put out of their temporary homes at the Budgetel Inn in East Ridge had been about the need to buy a widget, the kerfuffle would have made more sense.

› Could we get by spending $25,000, instead, for the widget?

› Could we get the widget somewhere else cheaper?

› Could we get a widget that we can guarantee wasn't made by anyone with a criminal record?

› Could we get by with a used widget that will be available after the first of the year?

› Could we put this widget discussion off a week?

Unfortunately, the County Commission was discussing people who would need a place to stay when winter was nigh and the coldest weather in nearly a decade was just around the corner. They were currently housed, but money from elsewhere would soon run out.

Commissioners understandably said they felt a memorandum of understanding from the city of Chattanooga about the $50,000 was hurriedly forced on them. And Mayor Weston Wamp said he had a number of possibilities for housing that were about to be, or in a short time would be, available.

In the end, the Commission voted unanimously in a resolution to provide the $50,000. However, Wamp never signed nor vetoed the agreement, meaning it would become law in 10 days without his action. Apparently, he never told Commission members he was taking that route.

In the meantime, the mayor visited with children at the Super 8 hotel in Lookout Valley, where many of those who had previously been staying at the Budgetel Inn in East Ridge were residing. Photos on the Hamilton County mayor's Facebook page show him interacting with children and officials from the Forgotten Child Fund, which had provided Christmas gifts for those on hand.

Earlier this week, Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles informed commissioners that the $50,000 resolution went into effect without Wamp's signature.

The mayor's response was that "this resolution came together hastily and lacked protections to ensure taxpayer money would only go to people in need." He also said, as noted above, that his office had been working on long-term solutions for the residents.

The second part of his statement -- that the resolution "lacked protections to ensure taxpayer money would only go to people in need" -- is in some dispute.

Wamp's sister, Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp, earlier had expressed a desire that no taxpayer money go to house sex offenders and those with criminal records. Following that, Joda Thongnopnua, chief of staff for Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, said none of the money would go for housing sex offenders.

We understand Mayor Wamp's mid-December statement about the memorandum from the city putting the County Commission "in a hot box." We understand his desire to be sure taxpayer money is spent wisely and only for what is absolutely needed. And we understand him not wanting to support sex offenders with county money.

In the past few months, though, the Commission has approved without discussion purchases of nearly $50,000 for radiology software for the Hamilton County Health Department, ammunition for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department and a battery backup system for the Hamilton County Emergency Operations Center, not to mention for amounts well in excess of $50,000.

Expending $50,000 for the temporary assistance of people who were put out of their homes because of the understandable action of the Hamilton County district attorney may be debatable, but it won't break the bank.

If a dire need had not been at hand, after all, commissioners might have debated the fact many of the residents had stayed longer in an extended-stay dwelling than the East Ridge law allowed, that perhaps the hotel owner should be sued to repay the $50,000, or that providing the money might open a Pandora's Box of giving money to any groups of dwellers put out of their residences for whatever reason.

In any case, the Commission acted on the city of Chattanooga's memorandum, and now many of those who were temporarily homeless will be housed longer.

Mayor Wamp's non-signature on the Commission resolution, especially given his visit with children at the Super 8, seems like an extension of his previous disputes with the body such as the firing of Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor.

Letting the resolution be enacted without him is an action perfectly within his rights. It just looks awkward, like wires are still crossed with the County Commission, like it is easier than vetoing the measure, and like all the information that could or should be disseminated between the mayor and the Commission is not flowing properly.

We hope 2023 will not find a continuation of what appears to be strained feelings between the county's executive and legislative branches.