Discretionary funds, which individual Hamilton County commissioners have used to assist schools, communities and nonprofit organizations, may be on their last leg.
Mayor Jim Coppinger's 2016 budget doesn't include them, he said, because of a lack of revenue.
In the future, the Hamilton County Board of Education should fund school projects, individual governments should pay for projects in their municipalities and volunteer fire departments still can come before the commission for assistance, he said.
As part of that budget discipline, Coppinger seemed to be saying, he won't ask for a tax rise.
Although the Hamilton County Commission has had a discretionary fund of sorts since 1981, the wider use of funds began when, according to Times Free Press archives, commissioners began to receive $100,000 apiece from a 2009 bond issue.
Since that was in the early throes of the Great Recession, funding was down everywhere. School board budgets, municipality budgets and nonprofit budgets all were tight. But commissioners could help by making their discretionary funds available.
Did those entities come to rely on the discretionary funds and begin to use their money elsewhere, or is money for the entities still so tight that without the discretionary dollars they will never get what they need? That is the million-dollar question.
Commissioners, of course, still will be able to propose spending money on some of the things their discretionary funds paid for, but the proposals will be open for discussion and the expenditures not guaranteed.
To be clear, the discretionary funds -- in 2014 -- paid for worthy projects such as a track at Soddy-Daisy High School, playground equipment for McConnell Elementary, basketball uniforms for Howard High School, golf equipment for Brainerd High School, computers for Lookout Mountain Elementary School, playground equipment at Wolftever Creek Elementary School, choir robes for East Ridge High School and a baseball field at East Hamilton Middle/High School.
Commissioners will vote on Coppinger's 2016 budget on June 17 and will have an opportunity to discuss it in an agenda session on Wednesday. However, the mayor told Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon on Thursday he hadn't heard from commissioners about the budget since a budget workshop on Tuesday. And no commissioners were present at a final budget work session Thursday. So publicly they seemed to accept what the mayor had drawn up.
But several commissioners told Brogdon they didn't want to see the funds go away. Commissioners Warren Mackey and Greg Beck, for instance, intimated their districts would get nothing without the funds.
"It will be real hard for me to ask my residents to keep paying county taxes when they are all being spent in the outlying districts," Mackey said.
"The school system's not going to help me and my district," Beck said.
Such comments are not likely to endear the two commissioners to Coppinger or Hamilton County School Superintendent Rick Smith but, in the end, are only nonserious rhetoric.
What is serious is whether they, and other commissioners, support the 2016 budget. Without it, or the acceptance of a continuation budget, county employees don't get a 1.5 percent raise, Volkswagen won't get the $26 million payment it is owed as part of its agreement to expand, and, among other priorities, the Humane Educational Society won't get the extra $226,000 it needs to make emergency repairs.
Even without the discretionary funds, commissioners still will have $12,500 each for expenses and the balance of their discretionary spending accounts from past years. As of May 29, those accounts ranged from more than $34,000 for District 2 Commissioner Jim Fields to more than $161,000 for District 6 Commissioner Joe Graham.
If the 2016 budget is passed, and once the budget year starts, commissioners will be able to monitor the spending requests they get and the expenditures they are afforded. If after a year the school board isn't funding school needs, governments aren't funding municipal needs and other requests aren't being met elsewhere, they can return to Coppinger armed with evidence -- and make their case publicly.