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A local charity has kicked a $4,000 check back to Hamilton County amid concerns about the legality of the donation.

The Harrison Ruritan Club gave the donation, comprised of four individual contributions from county commissioners' travel and discretionary funds, back to the county, citing concerns about the propriety of the September donation.

David Cox, vice president of the club's executive board, told the Times Free Press Tuesday that they "didn't feel comfortable" taking the money because of the club's lack of involvement in the Snack Pack program, a food donation program through East Brainerd Church of Christ.

"It was a misunderstanding. [The commissioners] thought we were involved with the Snack Pack program," Cox said Tuesday. "We decided that it was best that we returned those donations back to the county because that's not our program."

The donations were made by individual resolution in response to an August presentation to the commission that detailed the Snack Pack program, which is in its sixth year with a budget of $160,000, all of which comes from fundraising.

While the donations were made to the Ruritan club, the money was directed by commissioners to be sent to the church's program, an apparent violation of Tennessee law that prohibits governing bodies from donating public funds to churches.

Asked if the state law had any bearing on their decision, Cox said it "definitely was part of it."

"We knew that, of course, and that's one reason we gave them back, we knew it couldn't go directly to the church," Cox added. "Somehow [the commission] thought the program was somehow one of our functions and chose to donate the money to us, which we didn't think was appropriate."

When asked about previous donations to the club by current and former commissioners, Cox said he was unaware if any other money had made it to the church through donations to the Ruritan club.

A resolution to rescind the donations and send the money back to the travel and discretionary funds is on the agenda for Wednesday's agenda planning session and could be voted on at the Dec. 4 commission meeting.

District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe, one of the four donors, said that he didn't realize that the donation to the Ruritan club would be considered a donation to a church and that he understands the resolution if the donations violate state law.

"If that's something that is not supposed to be done, then we just don't get to do it, I guess," Sharpe told the Times Free Press Tuesday, adding that he was previously unaware of the resolution to undo the donations. "It's a shame that we can't put that money to helping the hungry school kids."

When asked how he, District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Smedley and District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston — a member of the Ruritan club — coordinated the donation resolutions that were not discussed in a public meeting, Sharpe said that he was asked by the commission's assistant after the August meeting at which the Snack Pack program was discussed if he would donate to the group.

Neither Geter, Smedley nor Bankston responded to requests to comment Tuesday.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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