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Hamilton County Commission Chairman Chester Bankston successfully lobbied a majority of his commission colleagues to tap the county's bond funds for an athletic field striping machine.
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Columnist David Martin

No one said giving up discretionary funds would be easy for some Hamilton County commissioners.

After much bickering in 2015, commissioners relented to county Mayor Jim Coppinger this year, quietly allowing discretionary spending to disappear from the $679 million general budget. Recently, however, a few commissioners have shown just how excruciating it is to go cold turkey, no longer able to individually throw around $100,000 of publicly financed feel-good money every year.

Let's call them what they are: discretionary funds junkies, hooked on playing Robin Hood with someone else's purse.

The worst addict is commission Chairman Chester Bankston who, in lieu of his discarded discretionary checkbook, suggested last week that he be allowed to use the county's credit line (aka bond funds) to purchase a striping machine for Ooltewah High School's athletic fields. You see, the old striper just "blew up," and in Bankston's mind the only way the school can get a new one is if he supplies it with your money.

So compelling was his argument, his peers voted Wednesday to approve the purchase. Backing Bankston were Sabrena Smedley, Randy Fairbanks, Warren Mackey and Tim Boyd.

In case you're wondering how much a field striper costs, commissioners are now set to cut a check to OHS for $3,400. True, that's not a massive spend in the grand scheme of things. But a quick Google search shows that the county's credit line just bought the Rolls Royce (OK, maybe the Lexus) of field stripers. A manual one (the kind we used on my high school's soccer fields in the ancient 1990s) sells for as little as $100, with fancier options regularly going for anywhere between $1,000 and $2,000.

$3,400, though? That's some top-shelf stuff right there.

But let's not get caught up on a single overspend. Our focus should be on the precedent Bankston's maneuver represents — what Commissioner Joe Graham, who voted against the measure, rightly calls "a slippery slope."

In essence, five commissioners now want to leverage the county's AAA bond rating to underwrite pet projects. If you think that sounds dicey, you're not alone. Cautioning against the practice, Mayor Coppinger warned that if dipping into bond money becomes a frequent practice, "when you go to sell bonds it could be a problem."

Undeterred, Bankston, a Republican (the party of fiscal restraint, right?), encouraged his colleagues to get in on the action, telling them they "can use this for a project you've got. You can do the same." In other words, "Come on, friends. Jump on this here gravy train."

Oh, you think that's brazen? Just wait, there's more. Sharing Coppinger's skepticism, Commissioner Greg Beck asked Bankston if there would be a limit to such spending. His response: "I have no idea." This has to be the best line of credit ever. No spending limits!

Have your eyeballs popped out of their sockets yet?

Forget for a minute that OHS parents and boosters could easily pay for their own field striper (a collection plate at the next home football game should do the trick). Bankston has spearheaded an effort to endanger the county's financial well-being because he and a handful of his peers refuse to get off the discretionary spending smack.

One of the chief responsibilities of the County Commission is to protect public monies, not to dole out goodies or dabble in crony philanthropy. Yet Bankston and friends have decided to jeopardize the former to continue the latter.

So the junkies have found their fix at last. I'm not sure why I thought they wouldn't sniff it out.

Contact David Allen Martin at davidallenmartin423@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.

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