The Hamilton County Commission will not bring back a program that allowed commissioners to give taxpayer money to their favored charities following a week of pushback from the public — and from one of the commissioners.
Commissioner Warren Mackey pulled his proposal from consideration on Wednesday. It would have re-established $100,000 annual funds for each of the nine commissioners to use to donate to nonprofit groups of their choosing.
Mackey did so despite the fact that, to his knowledge, the resolution would have had enough votes to pass.
"I truly believe I do have the votes," he said at Wednesday's commission meeting. "Because race has been injected into this bill, I can and I will bring it back later when some of these tensions have died down and when we are back to a more normal state."
Mackey cited a Chattanooga Free Press editorial opinion that, "Commissioners who don't support this resolution would be labeled as racist, anti-poor and anti-needy."
"I don't do racism," said Mackey, who is Black. "I don't want to put any of my fellow commissioners in a position of being thought of as being racist because they oppose [the resolution]. We're in a period of time where there's so much tension out here, so much divisiveness out here, to where I'm going to ask this resolution be pulled, though I'm pretty certain I've got the votes."
Mackey introduced the resolution last week, bringing back 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, money 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 funds go in 2015.
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 to end 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.
Martin is a vocal critic of reintroducing the discretionary funds and wrote in an online editorial that "there could not be a worse economic time for the government to spend additional money."
He also wrote the spending "is simply a way to curry favor with voters for the next election."
Mackey took offense to those comments.
"I haven't given any discretionary funds in over four years," Mackey said. "In spite of that, two years ago when the election came up, 83% of the people in my district believed in what I was doing. Eighty-three percent. I don't need to buy votes or curry favor."
Mackey said Martin's insinuations were insulting and an attack on his ethics.
"We just disagree. I mean nothing personal," Martin said. "It's just business to me. I'm not going to go tit for tat on it. To me, it's just trying to run the county the best we can and the most fiscally sound."
Mackey then responded by saying he has the same goals by reminding the commission and the public that Hamilton County did not have a AAA bond rating before he and others were on the commission, and he touted the county's $110 million reserve fund.
Contact Patrick Filbin at email@example.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.