Hamilton County commissioners are split on whether to use taxpayer dollars to help fund a memorial honoring Ed Johnson, a black man who was lynched from the Walnut Street Bridge in 1906.
The Johnson Project has been underway since 2017 with a local committee leading the efforts to fund a permanent memorial, as well as the creation of a documentary and community presentations.
Commissioners will vote next week on a resolution proposed by Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger to allocate $100,000 in county bond funds to the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga to assist with the memorial, but some expressed concern at Wednesday's agenda session.
"I think about Ed Johnson every time I walk across that bridge," said District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin. "I know this story, I believe this story and I think it's a story worth telling, but I have to say to you, despite my love and reverence I'm really struggling with this thought of using tax dollars to pay for historical monuments."
Martin said it would be "precedent-setting" — historically, the commission has not funded historical monuments or memorials, but rather community organizations often foot the bills.
Martin said he could be persuaded, though, and he wanted to hear from his fellow commissioners in support of the funding allocation before next week's vote.
District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd, however, said he was firmly against using taxpayer dollars to fund the memorial. Rather, revenue from the Chattanooga Visitors Bureau occupancy tax should pay for projects like this one, Boyd said. Each year, Hamilton County gives all hotel and motel occupancy tax to the tourism agency. Occupancy tax collections rose 60 percent in the past 10 years from $4.5 million in 2008 to $7.6 million in 2017, according to news archives.
"There's no question in my mind that this project is worthy; there is always the question of using public money for memorials of any kind," Boyd said. "I am not going to support using general fund money for the Ed Johnson Project. We have a revenue stream in place called the hotel-motel tax to fund such projects. This tax has been in place for a number of years, and with all due respect for the committee on this project, I will not be supporting this if we do not have an avenue for the [visitors bureau] to be willing to pay for this project."
Boyd said he plans to propose an amendment next week that would withhold $25,000 of hotel-motel tax revenue from the CVB for the next four months to cover the county portion of the project. In 2018, the hotel-motel tax generated more than $15 million, according to Boyd.
Boyd said the memorial would put Chattanooga on the South's Civil Rights trail and bring more tourists to the city. Boyd has previously taken on the CVB over its spending, management and a lack of transparency and has been a staunch advocate of using its tax revenue to promote the city's arts and culture.
The Ed Johnson Project, initially estimated to cost about $500,000, already is mostly funded, commissioners said, and some argued it was the county's responsibility to fund it in part as a way to acknowledge historic injustices in Hamilton County.
"This is not about tourism. This is about the injustice that was done, not only in our past but the injustice that is continuing to be done in our community," said District 5 Commissioner Geter. "It's time that we wake up and do something about that, and I think this is something this committee has done and for this body to play with it, I think that is also unjust."
District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey echoed Geter's thoughts.
"What is the purpose of erecting monuments?" he asked. "Why do we do it? What are they designed to do? I think they are designed to create a memorial where people will continue to learn things."
"[In] Hamilton County, we continue to see a racial disparity, and I believe sometimes we need memorials to remind us of what we have been and how we can be better."
Geter and Mackey were joined by commissioners Chip Baker, Randy Fairbanks and David Sharpe in expressing support for funding the resolution Wednesday.
Sharp, of District 6, went as far as to blame Hamilton County for Johnson's death — he was pulled from the Hamilton County Jail by a mob in 1906 after he was accused of raping a white woman.
"Frankly, we are addressing this today because of the [past] actions of the government of Hamilton County," Sharpe said. "The blood of Ed Johnson is on the hands of Hamilton County and we should do what's right."
The commission will vote on the resolution at its next regular session on March 6.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.