The Hamilton County Commission will vote Wednesday on the fiscal year 2020 county budget, but the outcome may not be black and white.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger's proposed $819 million budget includes a highly debated 34-cent property tax rate increase to benefit Hamilton County Schools, which may cause the otherwise conservative budget to fail or be delayed.
Because of the controversy surrounding the education portion of the budget, some commissioners have entertained ways to pass the overall budget, but not the $443 million proposed education budget, which is up from $390 million this year.
District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd, who has been outspokenly opposed to any tax increase throughout the budget process, told the Times Free Press on Tuesday that he would consider separating the education budget from the overall county budget if "the conversation wasn't going the right way" during the Wednesday commission meeting, to avoid the county entering a continuation budget.
"There are a couple of things that commissions can do as far as budgets go, and one of the things that they can do is split the budget proceduraly and vote on just the county portion and just the education portion," Boyd said. "Depending on how things go, there's a possibility that I would make a motion to split the vote to go ahead and pass the balanced county budget and let the county government get on with business without a continuation budget then we look at voting on the school board portion and, if it fails, send it back to them."
County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said that while it is possible under parliamentary procedure to isolate part of the budget, money cannot actually be appropriated or fully accessed under the budget until an inclusive budget is passed.
Other commissioners gave a mixed review of the separate budgets idea.
Hamilton County Schools budget highlights
Hamilton County Schools proposed budget highlights:
› 5% pay raise for certified staff and a 4% bump for classified staff
› 350+ additional positions, including 11 art teachers, 14 school counselors, 10 special education teachers, 10 social workers, 15 truancy officers, 9 assistant principals and literacy interventionists for all 42 elementary schools
› Eliminating general education school fees
› $5.1 million to provide a laptop for every middle and high school student
› $3 million for capital maintenance and an additional $15 million from the general fund balance for capital projects
"I will not support a tax increase at all," District 1 Commissioner Randy Fairbanks said, not committing to a stance on the alternative. "I don't know how [the vote] will go, or what alternatives will come up or that I'll support, but I won't support a tax increase at all this year."
District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe, who has supported the tax increase since the budget was proposed, said that he does not see the value in an amended or diluted version of the current budget or a continuation.
"I don't know why we would do that. Commissioner Boyd proposed the resolution that we extend the amount of time from the first reading of the budget to the vote, and now all of the sudden he thinks we need more time? That should have been in the original resolution," Sharpe said, adding that he would be hesitant to consider an amended version of the education budget. "I've been all in from the beginning for this proposed budget, and that's because I truly believe that it provides the tools necessary to really elevate public education in Hamilton County. If it becomes some watered-down version that doesn't really provide those tools necessary, I'd really have to think twice about it. I'm not in the game of raising taxes just to raise taxes."
Boyd also told the Times Free Press that other commissioners were considering alternatives to approving or voting down the budget, but he would not provide further details. Sharpe, Fairbanks, Chairwoman and District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Smedley and District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston would not confirm any other potential alternatives.
District 2 Commissioner Chip Baker, District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin, District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey and District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter did not respond to calls Tuesday.
According to the most recent statements by each commissioner, four (Fairbanks, Smedley, Boyd and Bankston) are against the budget as proposed with the tax increase, three (Mackey, Geter and Sharpe) are in favor and two (Baker and Martin) have not shared how they will vote.
Aside from schools, the county's proposed operational budget focuses primarily on public safety, which accounts for 14% of the overall budget, including a more than $3.5 million, or 6.4%, increase for the sheriff's office over the 2019 operating budget.
The sheriff's significant portion of the budget includes:
» $404,000 for six new positions (two patrol officers, two corrections officers and two school resource officers)
» $380,000 for the FUSE mental health program
» $854,000 for a 5% pay raise to all sworn personnel
» $1.9 million in additional compensation to raise the salaries of more tenured personnel to balance wages
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.