Hamilton County Commissioners sidestep involvement in East Ridge deal

Hamilton County Commissioners sidestep involvement in East Ridge deal

March 1st, 2017 by Paul Leach in Breaking News

Lookout Mountain Mayor Carol Mutter speaks to the Hamilton County Commission.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County commissioners don't want to divide a pot of capital project money, and they sure don't want to get involved in a school board deal to turn over East Ridge High School athletic facilities to the city of East Ridge, either.

Last week, commissioners discussed a school board request that they ratify an agreement for East Ridge to take possession of 12 acres of the school's athletic grounds, including a football stadium and track, tennis courts and two soccer fields. During that conversation, some commissioners asked whether they needed to get involved, since the county is not listed as owner on the property deed.

When the time came for Wednesday's scheduled vote, the commission dropped the matter entirely. No one said a word when Commission Chairman Chester Bankston asked to withdraw the resolution.

"No need for us to do it — it's all in their name," Bankston said after the meeting. "It's deeded to the Board of Education, so we didn't have any say in it."

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said he didn't see the county had any involvement in the matter.

Scott Bennett, attorney for the Hamilton County Board of Education, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Talk about splitting nearly $750,000 in bond funds among eight of the nine county commission districts also was a holdover from last week.

Vice Chairman Greg Beck called the suggested split "politically palatable."

"If you don't want to particularly draw on that money, so be it, but the resolution is saying you've got the opportunity," Beck said. "The distribution is there. Equal opportunity — you all ever heard of that word before?"

However, the proposal failed on a 5-3 vote, with only commissioners Tim Boyd and Warren Mackey voting with Beck. Commissioner Randy Fairbanks abstained, citing criticism he's received over discretionary spending.

The $750,000 is what remains of $900,000 in capital bond money Mayor Jim Coppinger allocated to the commission after an undocumented discussion at a budget workshop last spring. Coppinger extended the county line of credit, which does not exist as a separate budget line item, for the commission's joint use.

Beck's measure excluded District 2, represented by Commissioner Jim Fields. Last fall, the commission agreed to let Fields put $150,000 of the money toward resurfacing the Red Bank High School track.

In January, the commission indefinitely tabled a request by Commission Chairman Chester Bankston to use $500,000 for a new track to be shared by Central High School and Brown Middle School, which is in his district. That's when Beck started talking about sharing the remaining money equally among the districts.

Commissioner Greg Martin attempted to amend Beck's proposal by allocating the remaining money to the county school system to spend on priority projects. The measure died for lack of a second.

Coppinger said splitting the money by district would run counter to the intent that the money be used to make a large impact on the community.

"What we said was that we're setting aside this money for the commission to collectively bring forward a project," Coppinger said. "We had this discussion and this is contrary to what we agreed upon and what was stated in the discussion of how we would do this particular allocation of money. It was never intended to be discretionary spending."

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.