Sohn: Time to change our county mayor

Sohn: Time to change our county mayor

July 11th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times
Aloyse Brown is running as a Democrat for Hamilton County mayor.

Aloyse Brown is running as a Democrat for...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Aloyse Brown minces no words.

"I'm not a career politician. We need new leadership to tackle our community's biggest challenges. Entrenched politicians have made a tradition of forgoing government transparency and kicking the can down the road on some of our community's biggest concerns."

She is so right. In March and again in May of 2017, this page called for Hamilton County leaders to be brave enough to pay for education here, even if it meant passing an always unpopular tax increase — something we'd known we needed for at least a decade, but no one would own it.

As in all the years before, our county leaders demurred — until late August, when County Mayor Jim Coppinger suddenly announced that he would present, the very next day, two resolutions to the county commission about the millage rate. The first would reduce the county's millage rate to the certified tax rate, the mayor said in a news statement. The second would reset the millage rate to a level that would increase revenue.

The result was a de facto tax increase, but one that county leaders didn't have to call a tax increase. Rather, it was a "millage rate change."

It was a matter of semantics — a Greek-derived word for the manipulation of meaning. If we were tactful, we could think of it as a fold in the fabric of governing. A pleat to give commissioners cover from the outcry of disappointed residents. A tuck to hide the unpleasant sight of making sausage.

But since it was done with little more than a few days of notice before the vote, it was — bluntly — a complete lack of transparency.

In the months since, our county leaders have privately acknowledged that Coppinger had talked with them individually about the plan. The mayor's late August news statement didn't say so, but he already knew he had the votes to pass the resolutions. Otherwise, he would never have made the announcement. After all, just three months before, in June of 2017, the commission had rejected a property tax increase and passed a $700 million county budget.

Just as the August move was a complete surprise to taxpayers and voters, so was another surprise plan and approval later in October of a schools facility improvement list — one that, like the tax increase, got no input whatsoever from the public.

Now, yes, this editorial page had long said the tax increase was needed. Yes, we called for it. Yes, we're glad they passed it, and yes, we think they should have been bold enough to seek a larger increase because this one was not enough to catch up on our schools' deferred infrastructure maintenance, let alone pay for better academic instruction.

It's also true that the increase was smart from a money standpoint: We cashed in on the county's good fortune and property value growth.

But the mayor (and commissioners) did it in the dark, using the cover of a state law. Tennessee says a county's property reappraisal, made every four years, cannot create by itself tax revenue increases, so county leaders are forced to lower the county property tax millage rate to keep us from overpaying. The law, however, does allow county and municipal governments to set or change our millage rate.

That's just what our county leaders did. Abracadabra! We get more tax revenue, but it's not a tax hike, it's a millage rate change.

Coppinger, especially, and the county commissioners, too, owe us the courtesy of calling things what they really are. Above all, they owe us the accountability and transparency of talking about their proposals and plans in the open.

But that's unlikely to happen here unless we force change. A big change.

Aloyse Brown, 40, is a business executive with a multibillion-dollar nonprofit financial services organization. She is married to the Rev. Mac Brown of Lookout Mountain and has two sons.

A Democrat, she says her first priority is to rebuild a dialogue and trust between county government and Hamilton County citizens. Her second is to be a fiscal conservative — something not usually mentioned in the same paragraph as the word Democrat — and help us have better schools, improved public safety and infrastructure, and federally compliant jails within the constraints of current revenue and reserves.

Coppinger, who is 63 and seeking re-election, runs a county government that holds all of its meetings in the middle of the week during the working hours of most regular Joes and Janes.

The county makes an audio recording that it posts later online. It does not make a video recording — let alone stream the meetings live, as Chattanooga and other local governments do. This is the Gig City, folks. How hard can it be?

"We need to make a clear-eyed assessment of our communities' needs, and I am the leader who has the energy to bring those needs to fruition," Brown says.

We believe her. And we value honest and open transparency.

Make Aloyse Brown our new county mayor.

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