Hamilton County commissioners will put $3,400 toward an athletic field striper for Ooltewah High School, but they won't spend up to $2,500 to repaint the Lookout Valley Recreation Center this weekend.
On Wednesday, District 6 Commissioner Joe Graham asked his colleagues to approve the paint expenditure using unspent money from his commission expense account. Out of the six commissioners present, only four voted "yes." Commission Chairman Chester Bankston and Commission Vice Chairman Randy Fairbanks voted "present," echoing a vote Graham himself has used with other commissioners' special projects.
Commissioners Warren Mackey and Tim Boyd were absent. The District 3 seat — vacated by Marty Haynes when he assumed his newly elected post as the Hamilton County assessor of property on Sept. 1 — will remain unfilled until after a special election on the Nov. 8 ballot.
"I'll be sure to let my residents in Lookout Valley know," Graham said after the vote, announcing the parents and volunteers will not be able to paint the facility before they clean and winterize it for its closed season.
Bankston refused to comment on his "present" vote after the meeting.
Fairbanks later said he felt he had to cast his "present" vote because his constituents would not understand why he supported Graham when Graham had not supported him on half a dozen similar community projects within his district. He confirmed the six projects were paid for with discretionary money "that had been approved by the county commission."
Graham has withheld his support of other commissioners' special projects if the money was connected to discretionary money from the fiscal year 2016 budget. For that year, six county commissioners — including Bankston and Fairbanks — voted to take $900,000 from the county's $90 million reserve when Mayor Jim Coppinger left discretionary funds out of the budget. Those same commissioners overrode Coppinger's veto of the amended budget, which allocated $100,000 to each of the nine commission districts.
Graham has not abstained from supporting the spending of other commissioner expense money or discretionary funds budgeted in previous years, he said.
Fairbanks called Graham a "magician" when it comes to how he draws a line against voting for discretionary funding originating from the county's reserve, but not other discretionary spending.
"Whether it is discretionary money or expense money, it is all taxpayer money," Fairbanks said.
Next week, the commission votes on another special project for District 6. This one calls for spending $32,275, using discretionary money allocated to Graham before 2016, to install energy-efficient windows in a couple of rooms at the John A. Patten Recreation Center. The facility uses the rooms for after-school programming, computer labs and precinct voting.
Graham described the heat as "stifling" when the space was used for polling in the August general election.
The Chattanooga government and the local community already have contributed funding to renovation efforts at the center, he said.
"I'm going to use discretionary money I've had for a very long time to — well, that is, if I can put five votes together — to finish the project by putting in insulated thermal windows in both of these rooms," Graham said.
On Thursday, Commissioner Warren Mackey confirmed he was absent from the Oct. 12 Hamilton County Commission meeting due to obligations with the Tennessee County Commissioners Association's fall conference. Mackey serves on the executive board of the organization, whose goal is to "promote efficiency in county governments through the legislative bodies."
Chairman Chester Bankston announced Mackey and Boyd would be absent at the beginning of the meeting, but he did not offer any reasons for their absences.
Mackey said he asked Bankston in an email to announce his reasons for not attending the meeting.
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @pleach_tfp.