Sohn: Do you want your government to pick your charity?

Sohn: Do you want your government to pick your charity?

November 9th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

This sign at East Ridge Middle School, paid for with Hamilton County discretionary funds, was photographed in March 2014.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

We'd like to reach into your taxpayer pockets to buy candy for all nine Hamilton County commissioners.

We know they'll like us more if we give them candy, and maybe they'll forgive us for suggesting in opinion columns and editorial cartoons that they are trying to use your money for their giveaways — which in the long run are handy to help them curry votes at election time.

Think of it this way: We don't really want to hand out candy to the commissioners. We just want them to stop whining about us publicly at their meetings. We want them to recall the candy gift with warm fuzzies and give us some kudos instead of punches, maybe suggest that all of their constituents subscribe to the newspaper.

Sound self-serving? Of course it does. We can't just reach into public coffers or county reserves to bribe nice words from government officials. And frankly, we're wise enough to know that you and they would see right through such a sham effort.

County commissioners? Perhaps not so wise: Four of them on Thursday tried to get your money pulled back into their $100,000-per-commissioner slush funds. They call that chunk of your money — a total of $900,000 — "commissioner discretionary funds." They say they would use it in their districts for things such as sports uniforms, booster activities, community art and other small civic needs.

But the bottom line is that they want you to fund their charity.

No, that's being too kind to them.

They want you to fund their re-election campaigns. It's a process as old as politics. Those booster clubs that get "charity" have members who vote, and what better way to help those boosters remember the name of their county commissioner come election time than to pay for a project? Let's say the check is for benches in a little community park, and those benches are inscribed with a special thanks naming that commissioner. Now everyone who sits there might remember that name when they see it on a ballot, right?

Thursday's effort to reinstate the commission's on-again-off-again discretionary funds didn't work. The vote was a 4-4 tie, with Tim Boyd (who made the motion), Warren Mackey, David Sharpe and Chester Bankston voting for it. Greg Martin, Chip Baker, Sabrena Smedley and Randy Fairbanks opposed it. Katherlyn Geter was absent.

But rest assured, they will try, try again. Soon.

Boyd's motion was to pull the money from bond proceeds when the new fiscal year begins on July 1, 2019. Mackey didn't want to wait for the new fiscal year, suggesting they could take the money out the general fund.

"We're going to get a lot of heat about bad policy, voter slush funds, Sneaky Six, but I'm not worried about what the media says about me and my discretionary funds," Boyd said, adding that commissioners "know better than anybody in the county what our constituents are needing and asking for."

The whole discretionary money issue with this commission goes back years. It also entails a long-running feud between some of the commissioners — especially Boyd — and County Mayor Jim Coppinger.

In 2015 — after years of commission bickering over the funds — Coppinger took the $900,000 item out of the budget, suggesting small community needs be voted on by the commission as a whole. Incensed commissioners voted to appropriate the $900,000 from reserves and restore their piggy banks. Coppinger vetoed their action. Commissioners overrode Coppinger's veto. Eventually, the slush funds were phased out, but this year they've come up for discussion again — along with commissioner travel and office funds.

Boyd, who bills himself as the budget hawk of the commission, has said he views the mayor's nearly $1-million-a-month budget allocations for non-profits such as the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau (a Boyd hot-button), Erlanger hospital, and the Humane Educational Society as similar, non-transparent charities of taxpayer money because none have any real line-item accountability to the county.

The CVB's county-allocated budget is about $8 million a year, and last year a Tennessee Comptroller report scorched both the CVB and the county for lax accounting, noting that detailed receipts were not kept for 36 percent of the credit card charges made by CVB staff. Additionally, the CVB had long not made written reports to the Hamilton County commission and mayor, as required.

On Thursday, Coppinger told commissioners that pulling $900,000 for commission discretionary funds from this year's budget could upset bond rating agencies. He agreed the commissioners are the "eyes and ears" of the districts, but if they need vehicles for fire departments or defibrillators at schools, those items should be put into the budget for funding.

He's right. But so is Boyd. It's our money, and it all should be accountable — line item by line item.

On Thursday, new Commissioner Chip Baker tried to appeal to common sense: "Why don't we do this in the normal budgeting process? Curtail this discussion and move on to the opiate court and the other things that make a real difference."

That's a great question. Lets hope our county commissioners and mayor will stop replaying old feuds and think about it.

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