Hamilton County budget includes pay increase for employee retention

Hamilton County commissioners will cast their deciding vote Wednesday morning on Mayor Jim Coppinger's proposed fiscal year 2022-23 budget, an $881.2 million spending plan that contains no tax increase and focuses on, among other priorities, retaining employees.

The county's property tax rate would remain at $2.2373 per $100 of assessed value.

Education always represents the largest slice of the county's budget, and this year, county officials would allocate almost $523 million, or almost 59% of all expenditures, to Hamilton County Schools. An additional $30 million will cover education-related debt service.

The general fund, which finances the day-to-day operations of county government, encompasses 34% or $295.3 million of all county expenditures in the proposed budget. Salaries and benefits represent 58% of general fund expenses, totaling $171.7 million.

"One of the most important things that we tried to do was to make sure in this budget that we could get our pay to where it was competitive," Coppinger told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in an interview. "Obviously, we weren't trying to be the highest-paid government in the region, but we wanted to be competitive because that's where we lose a lot of our employees."

Employees would receive either a 3% pay bump or a salary boost of $2,500, whichever ends up being highest. That would bring the county's minimum salary to $31,307, equating to $15.05 an hour. Most starting salaries would increase by about 10%.

Last year, the County Commission approved an $833 million budget with a 4% raise for employees.

"I'm just trying to stay competitive with the market," Coppinger said. "You can go by and see where fast food's offering signing bonuses and $15 an hour, so we wanted to be competitive."

Chattanooga is also implementing a 3% pay raise this year, which will build on a $30 million investment made in employee compensation in 2021-22. The bump brings the minimum wage for city employees to $15.45 an hour.

"It's extremely difficult to get people and to keep people," Coppinger told commissioners during a June 1 meeting. "And we found ourselves lagging behind, particularly in our lower-paying jobs."

This will mark Coppinger's final budget as mayor. After serving in the role since his appointment in 2011, Coppinger announced in October he would be stepping down at end of his current term.

Republican Weston Wamp and Democrat Matt Adams will square off in the general election this August to decide who replaces him.

Coppinger said it was important to him that he leave the county in good financial shape.

"I'm proud of the fact that we've been able to be fiscally conservative," Coppinger said, adding that the county has kept a triple A bond rating from the top three rating agencies.

Although not part of the proposed budget, Hamilton County has been awarded $71.4 million in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, a stimulus package Congress passed in 2021 that distributed billions of dollars to state and local governments.

Of that funding, the county plans to allocate almost $28.2 million to the Hamilton County Water & Wastewater Treatment Authority.

Another $3.3 million would fund ambulance upgrades, and $656,000 would support broadband expansion. Additionally, the county is setting aside $300,000 for the Lighthouse Collective, a nonprofit organization focused on mentoring young Black men and boys.

The county still has almost $40 million in American Rescue Plan funding available to spend, and officials have identified several potential projects.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.