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Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger
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Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger will formally present the 2018 budget proposal to county commissioners today.

The $691.5 million budget does not include a property tax increase or discretionary funds for county commissioners and is $12 million larger than the 2017 budget, which totaled $679.6 million. The commission votes on the proposal on June 21.

On Tuesday, Coppinger reviewed the budget in a special workshop session. Several times he underscored what didn't make it into the budget, which would have required a 60.9-cent property tax increase to pay for the $732.2 million in requests put before the mayor's office.

That includes $24 million of additional needs not included in the Hamilton County Department of Education's balanced $372.8 million budget. Coppinger also did not include funding for any school capital projects this upcoming fiscal year in the proposed budget, despite the district facing more than $200 million in deferred maintenance.

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"There is a perception that we waste a lot of money, not just in the school system but in the government in general," Coppinger said.

Coppinger said the community has a perception problem when it comes to the school district, and taxpayers are not yet willing to invest more money in education. The county and school district need to work to correct this, he added, urging elected officials to get out in the community and "push back" against the misconceptions. Ultimately, the commission must decide whether to increase school funding.

Of the 60.9-cent hike, it would have taken to pay for all the budget requests, nearly half of it —26.7 cents — would cover the $24 million in unfunded school needs cited by the Hamilton County Board of Education. That comes out to about $106 more in property taxes a year on a $158,000 home, the median value of owner-occupied housing in Hamilton County.

This makes the 12th year in a row Hamilton County has not raised property taxes for its school system, Coppinger said.

Without a tax increase, the school district's general operating budget is expected to be $9 million more than last year because of an increase in property and sales tax revenue, along with a boost in state funding. The district plans to use this additional money to provide educators with a 3 percent raise, and to cover the increasing cost of transportation and custodial services.

In the additional $24 million request, the district hoped to add a variety of new teaching positions and professional development, along with updates to technology and robotics programs. It also wanted to give principals more money to spend at their discretion on school-level needs, and boost funding for technology and special education. The $24 million also included an additional 2 percent raise for educators.

Commissioner Warren Mackey questioned how progress can be made in the school system without improving its infrastructure.

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"We can't keep — in my opinion — doing the same thing," Mackey said. "We've got to set priorities. We can't be all things to all people. If schools are important, let's focus on the schools."

This did not necessarily mean he was in favor of a tax increase, Mackey said.

Coppinger said he had spoken individually with all nine county commissioners to get their perspective as to whether a tax increase had a place in the 2018 budget.

"I'm not outing anyone, but I'm saying the overwhelming majority of the people feel the same way that I feel in saying we're not there, because we can't validate this to the public," he said.

For six months, a group of 11 prominent business and community leaders have been quietly analyzing the school district's budget and operations, and compiled a 70-page report detailing strategies the county and district can implement to bring long-term savings and boost student outcomes.

The report recommended the county establish a new tax dedicated to schools infrastructure, technology and innovation. The group concluded the district is underfunded, and needs more money in order to make long-term strategic investments.

The group also recommended the district reduce the number of schools and teachers to boost efficiency, increase teacher and principal salaries and align compensation to quality, and improve accountability by hiring a chief information officer, chief operating officer and chief talent officer.

"We're there for you," Coppinger said to school board members attending the workshop. "Nobody's in denial."

After the meeting, Commission Chairman Chester Bankston said he could support the budget.

"Based on what I've seen, yeah — it's a balanced budget," he said.

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

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.

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