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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger listens to a school budget presentation during the Hamilton County School Budget meeting that took place on zoom call between the Hamilton County School board and the Hamilton County Commission on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger expects to present a "flat" budget without any projected revenue increases to the County Commission later this month, but some elected officials worry that the county isn't accounting for possible budget shortfalls or cuts.

During a workshop for county commissioners and the Hamilton County school board on Tuesday, Commissioner Greg Martin, of District 3, asked why the county was pushing to approve a budget on its usual timeline this year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath of the devastating Easter tornadoes.

"Knowing that the Legislature is going back into session in June and they are going to make adjustments, I presume, to the state budget which will influence not only our funding but funding all across the state of Tennessee, why are we doing this right now, beside it's just [that] 'We've always done this in early May?'" Martin asked Coppinger and schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson. "Why don't we wait until after the state legislature meets and see what kind of cuts they make before we give strong consideration to finalizing our own budgets?"

School board member Tucker McClendon also criticized the county finance team during a last-minute school board meeting to amend the district's proposed budget Monday night.

McClendon continues to question why Hamilton County isn't planning ahead for shortfalls the way Metro Nashville, Shelby County, Knox and Rutherford counties are.

"We are the only county of the five major counties [in Tennessee] that aren't projecting any type of budget shortfall or budget cuts to their revenues," McClendon said Monday. "But for some reason the county finance team is saying we're keeping our revenues projected at $80 million. It baffles me why they're doing that and not giving county government departments more direction and us more direction."

Nashville Mayor John Cooper has proposed a 32% property tax increase in an effort to recover from a $470 million revenue decline thanks to Nashville's own tornado and the COVID-19 shutdown, according to The Tennessean, and Knox County estimates it will be short $7 to $18 million in its own spending plan this year.

Even Rutherford County, closer in size to Hamilton County, has cut its proposed fiscal year 2021 budget by $4.5 million so far to avoid a property tax, according to Mayor Bill Ketron, The Daily News-Journal reported.

 

HAMILTON COUNTY BUDGET MEETING SCHEDULE

— Tuesday, May 12: Commission work session at 9 a.m. to discuss general county government budget

— Tuesday, May 26: Commission work session at 9 a.m. to discuss complete proposed FY 2021 Hamilton County budget (the combined school district and county budget)

— Wednesday, May 27: Official budget presentation to the commission during usual weekly Hamilton County Commission meeting at 9:30 a.m.

At this time, all meetings will be live-streamed on Hamilton County’s YouTube page.

Hamilton County school board members have asked for more direction from the county commission for weeks as they grappled with developing a balanced budget without any projected growth in local funding, but several board members say they haven't gotten it. The board eventually approved a $418.8 million budget Monday that eliminates annual teacher pay increases and freezes non-teacher hiring and purchasing through June 30, among other cuts. It also stashes $2.8 million in its fund balance in light of economic conditions.

Coppinger said the county is already planning to present a "no growth" budget, though. He also cited direction the county received from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury's Office urging local governments to adopt their fiscal year 2021 budgets by June 30.

"What the comptroller directed is we want to get a budget passed by June 30, and if you have to make any amendments that's what budgets are for," Coppinger said.

In a memo to local government officials dated March 20, 2020, Betsy Knotts, director of Division of Local Government Finance for the comptroller's office, did recommend that local governments continue with the current budget calendar, but also "reduce revenue estimates based upon expected revenue shortfalls identify expenditures that can be removed from the budget," and "ensure [the] government has enough money to meet its debt obligations."

Coppinger said Hamilton County is uniquely positioned because it is not overly dependent on sales tax revenue — the county receives only about $4.8 million a year from sales tax. Instead the county is heavily dependent on property taxes, but he anticipates local governments will receive funding from the state in response to the pandemic.

Johnson echoed the mayor's sentiments.

"We are in unknown, unprecedented times. When you look at a budget, the way we approach a budget is a budget is a fluid document and we work to be proactive and responsive with our budget," Johnson said during Tuesday's meeting.

MORE ON TEACHER PAY INCREASES

On Monday, May 4, the Hamilton County school board voted 6-3 to add $2.8 million to its general fund balance in its fiscal year 2021 budget instead of reinstating annual teacher step, or pay, increases.

During Tuesday’s work session between the district and the county, Commissioner David Sharpe, of District 6, noted his appreciation for teachers and his concerns about the attention both government bodies are paying to teacher compensation.

“As we’ve gone into this budget, there are so many unknowns…but particularly to do with how COVID-19 is affecting our communities, it’s a real challenge to think about,” Sharpe said. “I also noticed that a lot of the savings that we are finding in the budget also come from teachers, and as we learn more about what the future holds for us, I just want to be outspoken about the fact that we need to make sure we take care of these teachers when we have a clearer picture of what we’re looking at. …We really need to be investing in our teachers.”

Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, of District 5, echoed Sharpe and also emphasized her concern about funding for the mental health supports that students and teachers will need as the community grapples with the aftermath of April’s tornadoes and the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our teachers here in Hamilton county have stepped up have really have stepped up during this [pandemic] to play a huge role, [and] to not only continue to educate at the best level they could under the circumstance but also to deal with the emotional impact that this virus has had on our community,” Geter said.

 

 

Commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks, of District 1, commended Coppinger and Johnson for the work both the school district and the county have done to put together fiscal year 2021 budgets.

"I think Dr. Johnson and his team and the mayor and his team are doing the right thing to get out in front and get something on paper as far as a budget goes," Fairbanks said Tuesday. "If some figures come in and we have to do some adjustments, then we do those adjustments."

Commissioner Warren Mackey, of District 4, echoed Fairbanks.

"Listening to the other commissioners, they too realize we are in troubled times," Mackey said. "I think y'all have your thumb on the pulse of the people y'all are on the right track and you're being realistic in terms of what we can do."

Coppinger plans to unveil the complete proposed FY 2021 budget for the county, including the school district budget, during a work session on May 26 and officially present it to the commission on Wednesday, May 27.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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