Commissioners tussle over travel allowance [document]

Commissioners tussle over travel allowance [document]

May 12th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

The Hamilton County Commission listens to a presentation during a meeting in the Hamilton County Courthouse on Aug. 29, 2017.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Updated at 2:14 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, 2018.

Document: Graham letter

Read Commissioner Joe Graham's letter objecting to travel budget increase.

Hamilton County commissioners are squabbling over a request to double their travel allowance, to $25,000, in the fiscal 2019 budget.

Opponents call the increase proposed by Chairman Randy Fairbanks a sneaky way of getting back discretionary money to spend at will in their districts.

COMMISSION SPENDING

Hamilton County commissioners’ travel and discretionary spending is tracked on the commission website. Each commissioner gets $12,500 a year for local mileage, meals and office expenses. Unspent sums can be rolled over to the next year and spent for other things. Some commissioners also spent money left over from the discretionary accounts that ended in 2017. Here’s what they have spent this year to date, rounded to the nearest dollar.

› District 1: Chairman Randy Fairbanks

Local mileage, meals and office

$8,855 (includes $1,000 to Soddy-Daisy Food Bank)

Discretionary

$2,400: Mowbray VFD

$65: Chattanooga Times Free Press legal ad

$6,000 Soddy-Daisy Vietnam Veterans Foundation

$5,000: Sale Creek High School softball field tarp

Total discretionary: $13,465

› District 2: Jim Fields

Local mileage, meals and office

$17,468 (includes $7,869 to Signal Mountain Police Department, $9,000 to Signal Mountain Lions Charity)

Discretionary

None

› District 3: Marty Haynes/Greg Martin

(Haynes was elected property assessor in August 2016 and Martin was named to replace him)

Local mileage, meals and office

$5,995, local mileage, meals and office

Discretionary

None

› District 4: Warren Mackey

Local mileage, meals and office

$18,597, local mileage, meals and office

Discretionary

None

› District 5: Greg Beck

Local mileage, meals and office

$10,586, local mileage, meals and office

Discretionary

$4,500: Mary Walker Historical & Educational Foundation

$15,000: United Community Action Alliance

$10,000: Independent Youth Services Foundation Inc.

$1,000: Harrison Ruritan Foundation

$5,500: Mary Walker Historical & Educational Foundation

$1,500: A Night to Remember Inc.

$2,500: Barger Academy playgrounds

$150: Brainerd High School

$6.07: Hillcrest Academy

Total discretionary: $40,156.07

› District 6: Joe Graham

Local mileage, meals and office

None

Discretionary

$30,962: Normal Park Lower School gymnasium

› District 7: Sabrena Smedley

Local mileage, meals and office

$5,325 (includes $1,500 to Medal of Honor Hall of Valor Museum History Foundation, $1,000 to Harrison Ruritan Foundation)

Discretionary

None

› District 8: Tim Boyd

Local mileage, meals and office

$6,271, local mileage, meals and office

Discretionary

$5,000: Chattanooga Ballet Inc.

$2,500: Barger Academy playground equipment

$5,000: CSLA band instruments

$5,000: CCA acoustic blankets

Total discretionary: $17,500

› District 9: Chester Bankston

Local mileage, meals and office

$11,540 (Includes $1,500 to Medal of Honor Hall of Valor Museum History Foundation; $500 to Birchwood Area Society Improvement Committee; $750 to Junior Achievement of Chattanooga; $3,300 to Snow Hill Recreation League and $1,000 to Harrison Ruritan Foundation)

Discretionary

None

Supporters don't deny that, but say the money goes for good causes; one said the disgruntled opposition should just "shut up."

Fairbanks was out of town on vacation and couldn't be reached. Six commissioners told the Times Free Press he had not discussed the budget request with them before submitting it to the county finance department.

County records show most commissioners don't come close to spending the $12,500 a year they're getting now for travel and office expenses on top of their commission salaries.

The base salary is $23,128 a year, with a $2,500 bump for the vice chairman and $5,000 for the chairman.

The travel accounts pay for things like mileage to and from commission meetings or district events, training or conferences and office expenses. District 5 Commissioner Greg Beck uses $300 a month from his travel budget for a radio show on WNOO.

Unlike other budget line items, unspent travel money doesn't go back to the general fund at the end of the year. It rolls over and commissioners can spend it at their discretion in the next year. Their travel expenses are posted on the county website, along with spending from what's left of the $100,000 annual discretionary allotments that ended in 2017.

Records show some commissioners are spending far more on school sports equipment, fire department and civic groups than their own travel and office expenses.

Beck, for instance, spent a bit more than $10,500 from his travel fund and more than $40,000 from his discretionary fund to organizations including the Mary Walker Foundation and A Night to Remember Inc. He has around $21,000 left in that fund.

Beck couldn't be reached for comment Friday. He missed the commission meeting Wednesday because of illness.

Fairbanks spent about $7,200 from his travel fund, including $1,000 to the Soddy-Daisy Food Bank. He gave more than $13,000 altogether to the Mowbray Volunteer Fire Department, the Soddy-Daisy Vietnam Veterans Foundation and to Sale Creek High School for a softball field tarp. He has right at $2,000 left in his discretionary fund.

District 6 Commissioner Joe Graham didn't report any travel and office expenses this year, but gave just more than $30,000 for the gymnasium at Normal Park Lower School.

Still, he and Commissioner Greg Martin are against boosting the travel budget.

Graham sent a letter to Fairbanks and Mayor Jim Coppinger saying the increase isn't needed and asking that it be withdrawn. Read the letter online at timesfreepress.com.

Greg Martin sent a statement to the Times Free Press saying the same and adding, "I believe it is just a back-door way to restore discretionary spending."

It took Coppinger a couple of tries to end the discretionary funds, which he said the county couldn't afford. He pulled the money from the 2015-16 budget, only to have the commissioners replace it from reserves and then override his budget veto. In 2016-2017, he didn't put discretionary money in the general fund budget but included it in a bond issue.

Coppinger said he has received the request and it will be part of his general fund budget presentation on Tuesday.

Commission Vice Chairman Sabrena Smedley said Friday that although she didn't want to see discretionary money come back under that name, she favors having funds to help good causes in her district.

"It's all taxpayer money. If it's not used on reimbursing our expenses every month [and] if you give it on a just cause, you could call it discretionary money," said Smedley, who represents District 7.

She spent a bit more than $5,000 from her travel budget, including $1,500 to Medal of Honor Foundation and $1,000 to the Harrison Ruritan Foundation. She has a balance of $1,171 in her discretionary account.

"To me, it's all taxpayer money and we should be very thoughtful whatever we spend it [on]," Smedley said. "We can't be out there like we've got a free checkbook."

Commissioner Tim Boyd, in District 8, spent just over $5,000 on office expenses and $17,500 in discretionary funds. He supports having a pool of money for his district but said, "Let's just label them what it is and not try to confuse it with an expense account and just be open with the public. If we want to reinstate the discretionary spending and put it at $25,000 per commissioner, what's wrong with that?"

Commissioner Chester Bankston, who represents District 9, gave $7,050 of his $11,540 travel and office expenses to local causes including the Medal of Honor Museum and the Snow Hill Recreation League. He said he would wait to comment after until the general fund budget is presented Tuesday.

District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey took a swipe at Graham and Martin over what he called "showboating," and added, "I just wish they would shut up."

"We've had commissioners for 20, 30 years who thought the discretionary money was a good thing. All of a sudden you have a couple of people who love headlines and they'll get those headlines at the expense of everything, at the expense of the reputation of the commission," Mackey said.

He has spent more than $18,000 on travel and office expenses but no discretionary money this year. He has about $31,000 in that fund.

Mackey said discretionary money does a lot of good in the districts and he supports doubling the travel budget.

"Nothing we've done is illegal, there is transparency. When you have constituents who have real needs and you have the means of legally meeting those needs, such as with discretionary money, then why not support initiatives that are going to help subsidize others who are going to move the ball down the field?"

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-7547-6416.