Hamilton County mayor prioritizes families, future in first State of the County address

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd /  Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp delivered his State of the County address, which will include outlining budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year at FreightWaves on March 31, 2023.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp delivered his State of the County address, which will include outlining budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year at FreightWaves on March 31, 2023.

Setting his priorities ahead of budget season this spring, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp has outlined a vision for the county that centers in large part on boosting workforce development opportunities, assisting families and seniors, and accommodating growth in outlying areas.

Wamp's inaugural State of the County address occurred Friday morning at FreightWaves in downtown Chattanooga -- a setting that also served as a reference to the region's historic status as a logistics hub.

"At our very best, we're a county that paves the way for generations to come," Wamp said. "I think in a lot of ways our highest hope for the future of our county is we're a place where we would raise up young people to have success and find prosperity so their young people and their young people stay here and prosper here."

The mayor hit on a broad swath of funding objectives across five overarching topics Friday: the county's economy, investments in families, senior citizens and veterans, public health and safety, and ongoing growth.

Within his first couple of months in office, Wamp formed a working group focused on addressing the $1 billion backlog of building repairs at Hamilton County Schools.

That group has met every couple of weeks, he said, and should be presenting a set of recommendations at around the mid-point of this year. That will include investment priorities, information about funding methods and more ways to incorporate workforce development into the school system.

Hoping to motivate educators to move from the private sector into career and technical education, the mayor is also proposing the creation of a $750,000 fund that would provide $7,000 signing bonuses and cover the cost of licensing.

In the years ahead, Wamp also aims to reduce the waitlist for magnet schools in Hamilton County, which he said can be hundreds of names long. Additionally, he plans to form a parent council in the fall with the goal of having a forum for families to share their challenges.

Wamp is proposing major investments in the county's parks. The first part of the new park at McDonald Farm in Sale Creek, a 2,100-acre parcel the county purchased in 2021 for $16 million, should be ready to host the county fair in the fall, he said. The mayor also wants to see upgrades at Chester Frost Park and aims to reduce registration costs at county parks so they stay in line with those charged by the city of Chattanooga.

As part of his effort to meet the needs of senior citizens, Wamp is proposing the creation of the county's first senior center, at Harrison Elementary School. He added inflation has had a major affect on lower-income senior citizens, and his office is proposing the county fully match the state's property tax relief program.

"This property tax break would put more than $450 a year back into the pockets of disabled veterans and their spouses," he said.

Turning to the opioid epidemic, the mayor said Friday that almost 200 people died last year after overdosing on heroin, fentanyl or methamphetamines.

The county has been working with local partners to be first in line to apply for state grant funding, he said. His office has also been in communication with the Sheriff's Office about finding ways to treat inmates at the county jail who are addicted to opioids.

"Even though violent crime often leads in the headlines," Wamp said, "the realty is, by orders of magnitude, this affects more lives all across our county."

Most of the county's growth is occurring in places served by volunteer fire departments, Wamp said, and he plans to suggest increased funding for the departments, which would include new equipment. The mayor is also proposing a major shift in pay for emergency medical services personnel with the goal of hiring enough paramedics to get the county's 17th ambulance in service, hopefully reducing response times.

Noting that some of the most trafficked roads are now in unincorporated parts of the county, Wamp's budget would dedicate dollars for new road safety measures like reflectors. People frequently reach out to the mayor's office to raise issues about litter on roadways, Wamp added, and to address those concerns, the county plans to purchase its first trash vacuum truck.

"The county's in very solid financial position, and our budget is going to reflect that," Wamp said in an interview after his speech. "It was a lower growth year because this is the ratio reappraisal year where, by one measure, we lose a little bit of revenue, but overall, there's growth in the county."

The proposed budget does not include a tax increase, he said. Wamp expects to make a formal budget presentation in mid-May that the County Commission would then consider within the subsequent weeks.

Commission Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, said in an interview after the speech that he appreciated the direction the mayor is heading, singling out the focus on veterans, parks and education.

"I think we're all working very closely together, which heartens me," he said. "We've got some major hills to climb, not the least of which is funding and facilities and all that stuff, but we'll work on it. We'll work through it. I feel good synergy right now."

Both he and Wamp acknowledged Friday that the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of county government started off in a rocky place.

"Though it started out rough, we are a partnership," Baker said, "and that's the way it should be approached. And that's the way it appears to be moving."

The mayor concluded his speech by stating Hamilton County is an undeniably strong position, but there are still gaps in services.

"On one end of the county -- where we are -- we're in Gig City, but in Birchwood, the other end of the county, there's not a lot of high-speed internet," Wamp said. "Vocational education is thriving as it has been for generations in Soddy-Daisy, but it's not available to all students in the city of Chattanooga. The disparities are great. They're significant. If we're looking for them, we'll see them."

The county is growing at a rate of 2.2%, he added, which is on par with the national average of 2.1%. The area's median income, he said, is almost exactly the national average.

"But we're not average," he said. "Quite the opposite. ... Our responsibility is to build a community that for generations to come is one where everyone -- every person -- has a shot, where we look out for each other and our kids and every student and parent has choices."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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