How they voted
Keep the fund: Chester Bankston, Tim Boyd, Randy Fairbanks, Jim Fields, Warren Mackey, Sabrena Smedley.
Leave it out of the budget: Greg Beck, Joe Graham, Marty Haynes
Hamilton County's 2016 budget battle is over, and commissioners won. But the body's relationship with the mayor's office was a clear casualty.
County commissioners on Wednesday voted 6-3 to overturn a budget veto by Mayor Jim Coppinger. That means the budget, which starts on July 1, will include $900,000 in discretionary spending for the nine commissioners.
Coppinger had left the money out of his proposed budget, saying there was no revenue to support it. Commissioners voted to pull the nearly $1 million from the county's savings to reinstate the fund. Coppinger vetoed that move Monday.
The commissioners will each get $100,000 this year to spend on special projects. Whatever they don't use will roll over to next year.
Conservative groups and government watchdogs have criticized the discretionary spending program as veiled political pork.
Commissioner Randy Fairbanks on Wednesday defended his vote to reinstate the funds, saying the public wasn't getting the whole story.
"It seemed like to everyone I talked to, when we explained the situation that's going on with the discretionary funds, they totally had a different perception of it," Fairbanks said.
For instance, he plans to use discretionary funds to help paint a senior center in Bakewell.
"If I tell those people the head of a think tank in Nashville doesn't think it's a good idea for me to spend money in Bakewell they don't care about a think tank in Nashville," he said.
Instead, media should ask people who get the money if the funds are helping the community, Fairbanks said.
"I'd like them to go to Daisy Elementary to ask the principal 'What's the benefit from the $100,000 discretionary funds?'" he said.
Fairbanks' predecessor, before leaving office, used discretionary funds to build a road out of Daisy Elementary, reportedly to improve traffic safety there.
"That has never been done, and by my estimation would never be done without discretionary funds," Fairbanks said.
Coppinger said Wednesday no one questioned the value of the projects. He vetoed the amended budget because commissioners pulled the money from the county's savings, he said.
"All the other [arguments are] just a distraction and rhetoric, but the focus should stay on the fact that there wasn't revenue to support it. They didn't get it this year, so they went into the rainy-day fund and grabbed it anyway," Coppinger said.
But Commissioner Tim Boyd said the county is the financial envy of the entire state, and there is plenty of revenue to stock the discretionary funds. Those funds give taxpayers a way to see tangible results from their property taxes, he said.
"If that is shameful or a slush fund, then I'll take it. And I'll take the beatings for it," Boyd said.
Answering criticism that commissioners don't question each other's discretionary spending, Boyd said commissioners approve the projects "out of respect," and the public handles enough of the scrutiny.
Commissioner Sabrena Smedley challenged the idea that the discretionary spending is vote-buying money. If it were, she said, it would have helped incumbents keep their seats. Smedley and Fairbanks are in their first terms. Smedley won a vacated seat, Fairbanks beat long-time commissioner Fred Skillern in District 1.
"I think you will find there are a number of incumbents who are no longer sitting up here. So, where the idea of buying votes comes into play, I can't fathom," she said.
Along with Fairbanks, Boyd and Smedley, commissioners Chester Bankston, Jim Fields and Warren Mackey voted to override Coppinger's veto.
Greg Beck, who voted against the override along with Marty Haynes and Joe Graham, said the commission went about getting the funding the wrong way.
He couldn't support spending reserves on special projects when an early retirement, or bridge, plan for the sheriff's office was left out.
"I've been saying all along, $900,000 could pay for the bridge plan for three years. I can't in good conscience vote for that when the bridge plan goes unfunded," Beck said.
Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West said early this week discretionary spending should be abolished. On Wednesday, he said if it's going to stay around, the policy should be changed to make it more transparent on the front end.
Discretionary expenditures are posted online after checks are cut. And only projects that cost $15,000 or more ever see a vote by the commission.
West cited public outcry over the discretionary fund battle as evidence something needs to change.
"When you see that the public has one perception and you have a different view, it seems like this is an opportunity to come together and come up with a new policy for this," West said.
Fairbanks and Smedley said after the meeting they would welcome some new rules.
"One thing we don't want to do is, this time next year, being in the same situation having the same vote," Fairbanks said.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at timesfreepress.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.