Attempt to revive Hamilton County commissioners' discretionary spending accounts fails

Attempt to revive Hamilton County commissioners' discretionary spending accounts fails

November 7th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Breaking News

This story was updated Nov. 7, 2018, at 6:15 p.m. with more information.

An attempt to revive Hamilton County commissioners' $100,000 discretionary spending accounts failed Wednesday, but that doesn't mean the issue is forever dead.

Commissioners tied 4-4, with Katherlyn Geter absent, on Tim Boyd's motion to pull the money from bond proceeds when the new fiscal year begins on July 1, 2019.

"We're going to get a lot of heat about bad policy, voter slush funds, Sneaky Six, but I'm not worried about what the media says about me and my discretionary funds," Boyd said.

With "boots on the ground," commissioners "know better than anybody in the county what our constituents are needing and asking for," he said.

Commissioner Warren Mackey strongly supported Boyd's motion and didn't want to wait for the new fiscal year.

"I think we ought to commit the money now, for this year, and if we have to take it out of [the general fund], I'd do that too," Mackey said.

"If you were to have gone with me two weeks ago and seen the girls soccer team finish the game, come off the field and hand their T-shirts to the boys so they could play, you wouldn't want to wait until July," he said.

But commissioners Greg Martin and Chip Baker, along with County Mayor Jim Coppinger, argued those constituents' needs could be funded in the annual budget process.

"Would I like to have $100,000? Sure," Baker said. But it's "buying favor," he added.

"Why don't we do budgeting through the normal process, where if we have to get bathrooms or we have to get instruments or whatever, let's budget it, like any business that we've talked about."

Martin asked about the impact on county projects by tapping bond funds.

Finance Administrator Al Kiser said there isn't much bond money to tap. The county sold $125 million in bonds last year for new schools and school renovations and a sewage treatment plant.

"We might have to reduce a project and replace it with this," Kiser said.

"That's all the more reason to not be for this at this time," Martin said. "We have already put a plan together, we have already made decisions on what we're going to spend this bond money for. ... To me that is just not the way that a legislative body should move forward when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars."

Before County Mayor Jim Coppinger ended the practice in 2016, commissioners spent their annual allotments on needs in their districts, from permanent restrooms at East Hamilton Middle-High School to supplies for volunteer fire departments and schools.

Coppinger said pulling $900,000 from this year's budget could upset bond rating agencies.

"If it was a great idea, every government would be doing it," he said.

He agreed the commissioners are the "eyes and ears" of the districts. If they need vehicles for fire departments or defibrillators at schools, those items should be put into the budget for funding, Coppinger said.

"This is accountability to the taxpayers, check and balance in government," he said. "Your revenues have to match up with your expenditures, and we know that. All these humanitarian things we want to do require more revenue, and that means more taxes."

The 4-4 tie put Boyd, Mackey, David Sharpe and Chester Bankston against Martin, Baker, Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley and Vice Chairman Randy Fairbanks.

Smedley said she gladly used discretionary funds years ago to end the "disgrace" of portable toilets during sporting events at East Hamilton Middle-High, the county's newest school and "the pride of the neighborhood," as well as to get defibrillators for three schools in her district.

But the comptroller's office said commissioners couldn't use general fund money to help schools, because the school system has its own budget.

Fairbanks questioned why the commission was being asked to vote in November on something for the next year's budget. And he remembered the roasting commissioners received in 2015 after Coppinger took discretionary funds out of the budget. Commissioners appropriated $900,000 from reserves and restored the funds, then overrode Coppinger's veto.

"The saddest time I've ever had on the commission was when six of us voted for discretionary funds for our community," Fairbanks said. "In the newspaper was a big momma pig with six little pigs sucking. My name was on one of those pigs. ... How sad to go downgrade and try to humiliate somebody for their thoughts."

The 4-4 tie means the amendment can be brought up again by any of the commissioners that voted on it. Speaking on background, several commissioners said they're sure that won't be a long time off.

Several commissioners, as well as state lawmakers, also have acknowledged there are quiet talks going on about a renewed push to raise commissioners' pay when the Tennessee General Assembly convenes next year.

Boyd's surprise motion was an amendment to a much-discussed revision of travel and expense reimbursements.

Commissioners passed changes that move reimbursements for cellphone bills from individual commissioners' travel funds to the commission budget, and set aside $6,000 in that budget for the body's official representative to travel to national conventions and associations.

The changes don't alter the $12,500-per-commission cap on expenses, but shifting the phone expense frees up $1,200 to $1,500 per year for travel or discretionary spending in their districts.

A motion by Sharpe, seconded by Martin, to end carry-over provisions for expense money failed, 5-3, with Smedley adding the third no vote.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-5416.


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