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A intake officer for the Hamilton County jail pats down a detainee at the jail in downtown Chattanooga on April 5, 2017. The new Hamilton County Budget allows for hiring 16 new officers.Staff File Photo / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 4/5/17. A intake offer for the Hamilton County jail pats down a detainee while at the jail in downtown Chattanooga on April 5, 2017. The new Hamilton County Budget allows for hiring new 16 officers at the jail. (Officers requested no first names for security reasons)

Even though Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger already wants to talk money for schools for 2019, the county commission still has to pass the 2018 budget.

The commission votes June 21 on the $691.5 million budget proposal, which offers a 1.5 percent salary bump, with a minimum of $750, for county personnel, and it makes room to hire 32 more employees. It knocks down debt service by nearly $1 million.

"It does not include any property tax increase, but we're really proud of the fact that we are able to address public issues such as education and public safety in this budget," Coppinger said when he formally presented the budget to the commission last week.

The general fund budget grew by $4 million and the school system budget increased by $8 million over the 2017 budget. The new budget includes $3.5 million in property tax growth, representing a 2.5 percent boost.

The general fund portion of the budget, which pays for just about everything outside of the Hamilton County Department of Education, amounts to $222.7 million. Hamilton County Schools accounts for $425.7 million of the budget. Including capital projects funded through the general fund, education spending amounts to 66 percent of the overall budget.

In general, the proposed budget appears consistent with funding decisions made last year.

Last week, Coppinger reached out to Steve Highlander, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education, about getting educational funding discussions underway once that panel selects a new superintendent.

The school board submitted a list of $24 million in unfunded priority needs as an addendum to its balanced budget. Those requests remain unfunded in the 2018 budget proposal. Coppinger has said the overwhelming majority of commissioners have individually told him privately they could not support a tax increase to meet those needs, citing public perception that government and schools waste money.

At the budget presentation, Coppinger said he was "proud of the fact" that the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office received a 5.4 percent increase to its budget. The department's $35.3 million budget includes money for 16 new jailers and six student resource officers, accounting for most of the county's new employees. The department amounts to 16 percent of the general fund budget. Raises make up $372,000 of the sheriff's office budget.

Sheriff Jim Hammond initially requested $3.3 million more than he received. His proposal called for 25 additional jailers.

Hammond recently told commissioners it was difficult to find and keep jailers. Jailer training takes three months, he said.

In 2017, the sheriff's office budget received a 5.9 percent increase over 2016. It included $606,000 for raises and $484,000 for eight school resource officers who had been paid through grant money.

The budget puts the General Services Division, which includes corrections, parks, emergency management and ambulance services, on track to spend $40.8 million, about $1.2 million more than last year.

It takes $28.6 million to house inmates, which is 13 percent of the general fund budget, Coppinger said.

During a recent budget workshop, Coppinger told commissioners the county was evaluating a pair of proposals to privatize the county jail.

Hammond has described the need for a new jail as "the elephant in the room."

In related business, the mayor highlighted the budget proposal's call for allocating $313,000 to the county mental health court. That funding will allow it to stand alone from the public defender's office.

"We all look forward to that," Coppinger said. "We think there's an opportunity to save taxpayers' dollars by not incarcerating some of the people that just, primarily, need medication."

Two weeks ago, Criminal Court Judge Don Poole spoke to commissioners about continuing the court's mission, which launched in 2015.

"For the most part, every Monday that I meet these people, it's a good experience for me, it's a good experience for them," Poole said.

Health Services, Public Works and constitutional officers, combined, make up about one-third of the general fund budget.

Public Works, which benefits from a $1 million increase in state gas tax revenues, clocks in at $24.7 million and boosts highway expenditures by $795,000. The department's budget grew by 7.7 percent over 2017.

At $23 million, Health Services sees a 1 percent reduction over its 2017 budget. Constitution officer allocations amount to $27.5 million, an increase of $464,000 from last year.

Employee salaries and benefits account for 57 percent of the general fund budget.

The county continues to support nearly two dozen charitable and civic organizations, including numerous volunteer fire departments and public safety agencies, with $3.8 million in contributions. Erlanger Baroness Hospital, the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, the Urban League and economic development and environmental initiatives also benefit.

Except for the Chattanooga African-American Museum, which received a $3,000 boost over the $68,684 it received last year, charitable and civic funding levels stayed the same.

Outside the general fund, the county is on track to pay $33.6 million on bonded debt in 2018, which is projected to drop to $32.5 million in 2019.

"Our debt, we don't have debt [the] past 15 years," Coppinger said, adding short debt turnaround has contributed to the county maintaining a AAA credit rating. The high rating, in turn, usually helps the county borrow money at lower interest rates, he said.

The county also projects it will generate $8.2 million in hotel-motel tax revenues, a $400,000 increase over the $7.8 million projected for 2017. In line with a 10-year-old agreement, the county funnels all those revenues to the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Commissioner Tim Boyd has called for reducing the bureau's revenue stream by $2 million to use for a sports complex in the vicinity of Howard High School.

While mostly quiet on the topic in May, Boyd repeatedly and publicly questioned the agency's spending in March and April. He has challenged the bureau to release legally protected working papers.

"They need a transparent and accountable audit to take place," Boyd has said.

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

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