Hamilton County, Chattanooga mayors sometimes at odds with state lawmakers over 2022 session initiatives

NASHVILLE - Hamilton County and Chattanooga officials and local state legislators sometimes found themselves at odds on major issues during this year's session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Among differences was the city and county's request for $20.8 million in state funding for a new Lookouts baseball stadium and nearby environmental cleanup which never got traction with the seven-member legislative delegation.

Added to that was Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's request for a $725,700 state grant to purchase certain property rights for riverfront parking lots.

Gov. Bill Lee had included the funding in his revised $52.8 billion budget. But local legislators nixed that and redirected the $725,500, with the money being split between the Tivoli Foundation and Clinica Medicos, a nonprofit providing health care to the Hispanic community.

State lawmakers and local officials, however, wound up coming together on several other initiatives.

That included a bill giving the county and members of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority the ability to convert Erlanger Health System into a private nonprofit entity that could operate the system or even sell it.

At the insistence of the legislative delegation with Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, taking the lead, the hospital bill as passed includes a belt-and-suspenders provision that seeks to bolster and protect Erlanger's existing employee pension going forward.

And while the delegation turned thumbs down on an outright grant for the stadium project, members did insert another provision into the budget sought by Kelly and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. It allows the city to keep much of the state's 7% sales taxes on items sold inside the stadium, excluding the portion directed to public education.

"As is the case every year, there are some good things that were accomplished and some things that can be worked on in the future," Coppinger said Friday in a Times Free Press telephone interview. "I was glad to see the tax increment financing portion that passed for the stadium."

Coppinger, who isn't seeking re-election, also described as "extremely important" the newly passed law allowing the county to explore the possibility of Erlanger becoming an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Erlanger officials have advocated the move, claiming the difficulty of operating the hospital authority, created in 1976, with its records available to competitors under the Tennessee Public Records Act.

"I made several trips up there and talked to the delegation," Coppinger said. "And I appreciate all of the flexibility in [members] making themselves available to us to have all the discussions about Erlanger and also the ballpark for that matter."

Coppinger said House Finance Committee Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain (who is the legislative delegation's chairwoman) remained in constant contact with him and other local officials and was willing to listen to their concerns.

Lawmakers' 2022 session was the first full-on experience with the legislative process for Kelly, sworn into office a year ago.

"The first thing is, we didn't get everything we asked for, that's pretty clear," said Kelly's chief of staff, Joda Thongnopnua, in a Friday phone interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "And we're going to continue to plug away at that for next time. I think one of the things we're going to continue to emphasize is that we are always going to be a fierce advocate for Chattanooga, and we want want to see our legislators doing the same thing.

"And that's something that Mayor Kelly communicated pretty clearly," Thongnopnua said.

Thongnopnua said there was some positive movement from the local delegation in several areas, including the city's ability to keep a good portion of the state sales tax within the proposed stadium to pay off bonds for the project. That is going to be an important part of any potential economic development at the former Wheland and U.S. Pipe Foundry property, he said.

"We are also pretty encouraged by the conversations that have happened around Moccasin Bend," Thongnopnua noted.

Lee has proposed replacing the 61-year-old Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga with a new facility on the history-rich site. The governor placed $276.52 million from President Joe Biden's stimulus package in the budget to pay for replacing the old facility with a new one to be built at the same site.

And that sparked a conversation by Hazlewood, Watson, Kelly and others about a unique opportunity to relocate the new hospital elsewhere within Hamilton County and then fully integrate the 107-acre psychiatric hospital property into the historic 956-acre Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.

Kelly has proposed several alternative sites within the city for a new psychiatric facility. Rep. Greg Vital, R-Georgetown, a health care entrepreneur, has been tasked by his legislative colleagues to explore possible sites as well.

"There's been a lot of interest around that," Thongnopnua said. "The governor's staff as well members of our delegation have generally been supportive of opening up different possibilities and exploring every option."

Thongnopnua reflected in his interview about how the session went for Kelly's legislative priorities.

"I think there were some misfires in terms of some areas where we would like to have seen more support, but we're going to evaluate our options moving forward, ensuring those important priorities move forward regardless of whether or not we got support from our delegation and the state on these items," he said.

He cited as an example Hamilton County legislators repurposing Lee's proposed $725,700 grant for Chattanooga's River City Co. to help the nonprofit group to secure rights for state-owned land on the riverfront with an eye toward future potential development.

Lawmakers were opposed to taking the lots at Riverfront Parkway and Power Alley and potentially turning them over to a developer.

Groups, including the Head of the Hooch Regatta, which holds a two-day rowing regatta on the Tennessee River downtown, had raised alarms about the potential loss of the parking lots for their annual event.

"The city of Chattanooga is going to try and figure it out when it comes to those parking lots because that project is just too important to let go, and that means we're going to have to make some hard decisions back home about what we will not do in order to make sure that happens," Thongnopnua said. "Because we're going to have to divert funds from other local projects for things like the riverfront parking lots. And I know that is part of the governing process. We're always kind of evaluating our priorities and making decisions."

Kelly gets along with the delegation, Thongnopnua said, calling the relationship important but frank.

"He approached it with I think the spirit of cooperation and willingness to learn. So I think that's something we're going to continue to refine as we head up to Nashville," Thongnopnua said. "I think what we heard from the delegation was, you know, we want open lines of communication. We want to be partners, I think, even when we don't agree. And certainly that was the case. We didn't always agree. The mayor didn't always agree with members of the delegation. And I think the mayor probably hopes that level of candor is appreciated and may be a departure from how other administrations may have engaged the legislature and kind of keeping that constant dialogue is sort of a priority for us."

This year's budget includes a $5 million grant to the city of East Ridge to assist with infrastructure for Chattanooga Red Wolves soccer team owner Bob Martino's planned $200 million residential and commercial development near his stadium.

"This is an investment for East Ridge and Hamilton County and the state of Tennessee," Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, also a city councilwoman, stated in a Friday text to the Times Free Press. "The long-term benefits will create an environment for economic growth and development, increased revenue and most importantly job creation."

She and Gardenhire advocated for the project. East Ridge's original request was $13 million.

Gardenhire has repeatedly contrasted the self-funded Martino project with the Lookouts stadium effort, noting Martino funded the Red Wolves' 5,500-seat facility himself.

The new stadium with the Chattanooga Lookouts as the primary user is pegged at costing $86.5 million. The owners of the property have since revealed they were donating some of the land at the proposed Wheland Foundry/U.S. Pipe site. Also, a Nashville developer is planning $150 million in new residential and commercial projects around the proposed stadium if the multi-use facility receives the go sign from officials, according to a document sent to state legislators.

Gardenhire said the money diverted from River City Co. is going to good purposes.

"We got some much-needed money for the Tivioli Foundation to revitalize the old Fowler's building, which is now connected to the Tivoli," the senator said. "That's a big plus for Chattanooga. We saved the parking down by the aquarium and the riverfront. We had a lot of people objecting to turning that area into a housing development."

The other funds going to Clinica Medicos in the Highland Park and East Lake area of Chattanooga takes a big burden off of safety-net providers, he added.

He also cited the funding for the East Ridge infrastructure project off I-24 which he referred to as a gateway to Chattanooga.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.