Moments in Memory: A look at the last time Hamilton County hiked taxes to fund schools

Moments in Memory: A look at the last time Hamilton County hiked taxes to fund schools

May 19th, 2019 by Davis Lundy in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Commissioner Larry Henry

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:46 p.m. on Monday, May 20, 2019. An earlier version incorrectly said Republican Larry Henry was joined in the vote by three Democrats. He was joined by two Republicans and two Democrats.

Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. To read more, visit timesfreepress.com/150years.

Republican Larry Henry was the swing vote on Aug. 22, 2005, when the Hamilton County Commission passed Resolution 805-38. The 5-4 vote to raise property taxes gave the Hamilton County Department of Education new money for school operations, the last time that occurred. Henry joined two Republicans and two Democrats in the vote before a packed room of educators.

"I knew about a week out that the votes would be there if I voted yes, and I was prepared to do that," said Henry, who was elected circuit court clerk in 2014 after serving 12 years on the commission. "I also knew I was going to hear about it."

The 2005 tax increase was the only time the commission held two votes to designate tax dollars between county general government and the school system in the nine tax increases since 1980, according to records from Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles.

The first vote designated 10 cents to county general government and the second 16 cents to the school system. Commissioners Charlotte Vandergriff (District 3), William Cotton (District 4), Greg Beck (District 5), Cassavant (District 2), and Henry (District 6) voted yes on both votes. Commissioners Curtis Adams (District 8), Bill Hullander (District 9), Ben Miller (District 6) and Chairman Fred Skillern (District 1) voted no.

"The issue for me was buildings and the push from the schools was about middle school sports," said Henry. He noted that the 2005 vote was preceded by a strong push by County Mayor Claude Ramsey for a 50-cent tax in 2004 following a lengthy public process. "It wasn't about teachers who wanted a raise. We needed buildings and people were out on the streets collecting money for middle school sports."

Between 1980 and 1994, when the City of Chattanooga voted to give up control of city schools, the governing body of Hamilton County raised taxes four times for a total of $1.64. Since 1996, the commission has increased taxes five times for a total of $1.76. The largest increase was 51.8 cents, passed in June 1999 at the conclusion of the second year of the merged county school system.

The commission is currently considering a 49-cent property tax increase. The combination of a 34-cent increase for the school system and 15-cent increase for county general government yields a proposed county budget of $719,065,000. The county budget approved after the 2005 tax increase was $514,885,500, according to Knowles. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger will present the final budget proposal on June 4.

Here's how the Times Free Press, then in its sixth year of combined ownership for publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr., reported on the 2005 tax increase.

***

The banner headline across the top of the six-column, Aug. 21, 2005, edition of the Sunday Times Free Press (50 cents, 104 pages) said, "Cassavant to Propose Property Tax Increase." The front page featured part of an ongoing series of reports on the influence of lobbyists on the General Assembly and a report from Andy Sher on Democrats and Republicans debating ethics in Nashville prior to the 2006 elections.

The Times' editorial page framed the next day's vote: "If five county commissioners finally do agree tomorrow morning to end the county's unprecedented six-year fiscal drought and approve a tax increase – and that possibility rides again on an uncertain swing vote – the increase almost certainly will be too cautious, and too modest."

The Times followed with another editorial on the morning of the vote, saying, "Regardless of how the County Commission votes today on some catch-up funding for the county school system to restore past cuts in teaching positions, curriculum and facilities, extensive damage to public schools already has been done."

A five-column headline, "Property Tax OK'd by Commission," confirmed Henry voted yes as the swing vote on Aug. 22. A breakout box with the lead story said the new money would fund $3 million in school maintenance, which then Superintendent Jesse Register used to create a designated fund. It also included $456,000 for school coaching supplements, which addressed the middle school sports issue. The box said $2.2 million would be used for county general government pay raises; $3.3 million for teacher pay raises.

The 3 cents dedicated to capital funded East Hamilton Middle/High School, Signal Mountain High School, Hixson Middle School, Soddy Elementary and Orchard Knob Elementary.

Two quotes in the report summed up both sides of the debate.

Skillern said, "My goal as a commissioner is to manage money so well that if I say we need a tax increase, that even the most opposed people will say, 'At least he is right, because he has been a good steward of the public's money.'"

East Ridge resident Joe Harmon, in attendance at a packed courthouse depicted in a photograph inside the newspaper, said, " think it's great that we are making monetary decisions that support education. All education is the pathway to a healthy and successful life."

The Times' third editorial in three days said, "The hope in Monday's vote lies not in the half-step forward, but in the promise that a new majority can be more bold in moving the county forward."

The ideologically conservative Free Press, which had not written an editorial in the runup to the vote, offered a rare endorsement of the tax increase. It said, "Of course, no one really wanted a Hamilton County property tax increase. But neither do we want the opportunities and achievements of our school children to be blighted, nor other functions of the county government to wither on the vine.

"So, five members of the Hamilton County Commission have done the right thing: They have bitten the bullet, chosen the lesser of evils, and have voted a property tax increase of 26 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. This is by no means an unreasonable amount."

***

Curtis Adams winks and says, "tell everyone I'm 81" as he sits comfortably in an assisted living center in East Ridge. Adams, now 86, served on the County Commission from 1988 to 2010. He went on the commission as a Democrat and flipped to the Republican party in February before the 2005 vote.

He smiles and said, "I'm not sure what I am today."

Adams voted yes on the 1999 property tax increase, no on both votes in 2005 and then yes for a 2007 property tax increase designated only for capital expenditures.

"That's Curtis," said Henry. "He was a colorful character, one of many before and after I went on the commission. With people like him, Skillern, (Harold) Coker and Love, being a commissioner was never boring."

Adams spent 41 years working for Roy McDonald, the founder the News-Free Press. He calls those years "the best of my life," and he says his approach to a tax increase was to study it, make up his mind and then endure the good and bad of what the citizens had to say.

"I spent time in my schools and loved those people," Adams said in a low voice. "It was hard if you were against a tax increase because they would be the ones you'd hear from over and over. The people in my district were against the tax increase, but the schools always turned the teachers you get along with against you.

"It was bad in 2005, but not any worse than any other year. Probably no different this year, because either the taxpayers or the educators are going to be mad."

Contact Davis Lundy at davislundy@aol.com.


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