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Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks about the budget during a county commission meeting on June 3, 2015.
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Discretionary spending 2014

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Discretionary Spending 2015

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Hamilton County commissioners haven't said so publicly, but they want their $900,000 back.

After Mayor Jim Coppinger first revealed his proposed 2016 budget, commissioners publicly praised the mayor and his staff. The $644.4 million budget appears clean. There's no tax increase, and county employees will get a raise if it's passed.

But privately, commissioners are bemoaning the loss of their annual set-aside of $100,000 apiece that's been a budget fixture for years.

"It's going to be tough to support a budget that doesn't have it," said District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey.

Commissioner discretionary funding started in 1981 as a $70,000 shared pot, but morphed over time. The current program, $100,000 a year for each of the nine commissioners, has been around since 2008. The money rolls over year to year, and this year commissioners were limited to spending the money on public projects that will last longer than 15 years.

For the 2016 budget, commissioners asked that those restrictions be removed.

Good government groups have raised concerns about allowing individual elected officials to direct that much dough. In Tennessee, only Hamilton County allows commissioners to direct more than $5,000 annually. Some critics have called the program thinly veiled vote buying that gives incumbents an unfair advantage.

But commissioners say that's not so. They say discretionary funds are good for the community and show residents that their government is working for them.

Most say they want the funds added to Coppinger's proposed budget. Mackey is downright adamant, saying that without discretionary dollars his district, which includes much of Chattanooga's inner city, will be left out.

"After all, there's no projected spending in my district. There are no schools being built in my district, and we don't get infrastructure," Mackey said. "It will be real hard for me to ask my residents to keep paying county taxes when they are all being spent in the outlying districts."

District 5 Commissioner Greg Beck, who represents much of East Chattanooga and the Highway 58 area, also said it was disappointing the funds were excluded.

"Sure it is, because the school system's not going to help me and my district. That's the only way we can get extra help. They are not going to do any extra things in my district. They've proven that."

Beck cited a chronically leaking roof at a school in his district that he said the school system is only now getting around to fixing.

Commissioner Randy Fairbanks, who represent Soddy-Daisy, has had no discretionary money to spend. Former District 1 Commissioner Fred Skillern spent more than $300,000 in the district fund before leaving office.

Fairbanks said he would like the money, because the eight schools and several volunteer fire departments in his district need the help.

In District 3, Marty Haynes said nearly all his money went to schools and fire departments, too. And he hoped for "common ground" with Coppinger because fire departments and schools have come to "expect and depend on" discretionary money from commissioners.

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Coppinger said he hasn't heard a word from any commissioner since a budget workshop Tuesday. Commissioners asked no questions during the official presentation Wednesday and none showed up to a final budget work session Thursday. But Coppinger was prepared to answer their arguments.

He said needs at county schools should be dealt with -- and paid for -- by the Hamilton County Board of Education. And public projects in Chattanooga, East Ridge, Red Bank or the other municipalities should be paid for by those respective governments.

Further, Coppinger, a former Chattanooga fire chief, said volunteer fire departments can still come to the commission for aid.

"It doesn't eliminate some of our more important expenditures, where money has helped ... our local fire departments. There will be a mechanism for that to continue," Coppinger said.

But Fairbanks and District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd counter that such requests would require budget amendments.

"I would rather have it in the budget and no surprises," Boyd said.

District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, who represents East Brainerd and the southeast side of the county, said she's "anxious to have the discussion."

"And I'm very open -- if we keep the funds -- to there being limits on how they can be used," Smedley said.

Boyd, who represents East Ridge and parts of Brainerd and Chattanooga, said he wants the discretionary funds only if there is revenue to support them.

"If funds are available, I'd like to see them in there. I'm not in favor of the current system of borrowing money through bonds to fund discretionary spending," Boyd said.

But he added that he hadn't completely studied the budget by Thursday.

Revenue is the chief reason the funds are gone, Coppinger said.

"In order to have good government and do what we all say -- be good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars -- we are not raising taxes, we don't want to raise taxes, and that's been the source of that revenue over the years," he said.

The county hasn't raised property taxes in eight years. In that time, it has budgeted $7.2 million in discretionary spending.

Haynes was the only commissioner to say he wouldn't vote the budget down over the discretionary funds.

"At this point, no. I like the budget, I like what's in it. ... We can't afford to do everything everybody wants," Haynes said.

Other commissioners said they were still studying the budget and considering their positions. All will have to think hard about refusing to pass the budget over $900,000.

If the budget isn't passed and commissioners accept a continuation budget for 2016, there would be consequences. The Humane Education Society will not get the extra $226,000 it needs to perform emergency repairs to its 70-year-old structure. Volkswagen will not get the $26 million payment the county owes it as part of the auto maker's agreement to expand in Hamilton County. And no county employee would get the 1.5 percent raise that's built in to the new budget.

Commissioner Chester Bankston and commission Chairman Jim Fields declined to comment on the discretionary fund issue, saying they would wait to discuss it at Wednesday's agenda session.

"I don't have anything to say about it right now, it's still under investigation," Bankston quipped.

Commissioner Joe Graham did not return a phone message Thursday.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrog don@timesfreepress.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.

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