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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / The Central High School football team received $10,000 under a previous iteration of the Hamilton County commissioner grants program, which may be revived.

The Hamilton County Commission will consider a resolution next week to set aside $900,000 of taxpayer money to bring back discretionary funds for each commissioner to hand out to causes they see as worthy.

Commissioner Warren Mackey introduced a resolution Wednesday to re-establish $100,000 annual funds for each of the nine commissioners to use to donate to nonprofit groups, resurfacing a seven-year-old battle over whether the spending is appropriate.

Years ago, the commission allotted $100,000 to be spent by each commissioner per year, which was largely used to benefit local nonprofit groups. After discussion of whether the money was going to benefit the community or the individual commissioner's political standing, the fund was first removed in 2014 by County Mayor Jim Coppinger. Commissioners then appropriated $900,000 from reserves and restored the funds, then overrode Coppinger's veto, drawing criticism from the public and ultimately letting the fund go in 2015.

Then, a similar attempt by Commissioner Tim Boyd to restore the $100,000 funds in 2018 narrowly failed with a 4-4 vote among the eight present commissioners.

Since then, commissioners have each operated a $12,500 fund for travel and discretionary spending, which rolled over year to year, allowing some commissioners to accrue and donate tens of thousands of government dollars to the charities of their choosing. In January, Commissioner Greg Martin wrote a resolution ending the roll-over practice, requiring that unused monies be returned to the county general fund, after several commission donations were rejected by a church program, citing rules that forbid the government from donating to a religious group.

(READ MORE: Should your tax dollars go to charity? Hamilton County commissioners debate proper discretionary spending)

"Our travel expenses and our meeting services, etc. what we don't use each year would just go back, like every other constitutional office, to the general fund," Martin said at the time, invoking the county's "use it or lose it" philosophy.

"Every other constitutional office in county government, when they don't use those particular travel funds, they go back in the general fund. I just think that would be a good thing for the county commission to do."

While a majority of commissioners favored this as a practical measure, others, including Mackey, said they would push back to protect the funds in order to bolster nonprofit groups in the community.

Now, six months later, Mackey is calling for the commission to revive the original $900,000 in funds for commissioners to benefit community groups.

"This money has served some good purposes," Mackey said Wednesday, citing donations to recreation centers and other youth programs which he believes have curtailed "gang activity and craziness."

"I've got to believe that I'm not the only commissioner who has poor people and needy people in their district," he said, "and this money is designed to help bring support to them."

Martin— who accrued over $37,500 over several years of minimal donating from his fund and then donated $32,000 to the Dallas Bay Fire Department before the rollover funds were to be reclaimed by the county in June — says he's "philosophically" opposed to reviving the discretionary funds, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

(READ MORE: Proposed Hamilton County budget foregoes raises, 'frills' to offset coronavirus, tornadoes)

"I cannot think of a more inappropriate time for us to take $900,000 out of the general fund to spend," Martin said.

"We're not exactly sure what economically is going to happen in the future and how this is all going to shake out," he added. "So to me, I don't think it would be prudent to do that at this time for a lot of reasons, but if for no other reason, because we've had to tighten the belt and we're not exactly sure how tight that's going to be when it's all said and done."

While no other commissioners weighed in on the preliminary discussion of Mackey's fund proposal, the mayor said later in the meeting that he does not support the fund.

"Hopefully the discretionary money doesn't happen, speaking as the fiscal agent of this county," Coppinger said.

The commission will vote on the resolution on Wednesday.

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

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Warren Mackey is commissioner for District 4. The Hamilton County Commission met in regular session on February 12, 2020.
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