Tax organizations criticize county mayor office upgrade

Tax organizations criticize county mayor office upgrade

July 2nd, 2010 by Dan Whisenhunt in Politics Local

The office of Hamilton County's mayor soon will receive nearly $89,000 in furniture as part of courthouse renovations, and the figure has one state tax organization seeing red.

Mayor Claude Ramsey said the furniture is for any future county executive. It won't have to be replaced for decades, he and county commissioners said.

The furniture mostly consists of high-end pieces from Councill Contract, a North Carolina company selling furniture to executives.

When the office is ready by August, it will include a nearly $8,000 desk from Councill Contract's Wall Street collection.

The company's website states: "From stunning veneers and inlays to hand-tooled leather tops and refined upholstery, our casegoods and seating are a reward for reaching the hard-earned executive level."

Mr. Ramsey said the furniture is for the office, not for him alone.

"It's nice furniture, there's no doubt, but bear in mind, not something you change out every day," he said.

Ben Cunningham, a spokesman for Nashville-based Tennessee Tax Revolt, called the spending an "abuse of taxpayer money" and said it makes people skeptical of government. He recommended the county return the furniture and that the mayor instead buy a $500 desk.

"The high-profile people he is there to impress are the taxpayers of Hamilton County and he ... better keep them as his highest priority," Mr. Cunningham said.

Steve Ellis, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said public officials from "a county politician" to the U.S. president need to be "very conscious" of how they spend money.

"Just the optics of getting new office furniture from the Wall Street line for the mayor's desk is going to catch in the craw of many of the county taxpayers," he said.

County Engineer Todd Leamon said the county basically gutted the mayor's suite because of asbestos problems.

Mr. Ramsey, alluding to the Aug. 5 county general election, said, "I don't know if I'll ever serve a day in that office with that furniture. It's something for the highest elected official."

His opponent is independent candidate Richard D. Ford.

Commissioner John Allen Brooks, who along with other commissioners on June 16 unanimously approved spending the money, said the timing probably wasn't the best because the commission has asked all departments to keep their 2010-11 budget requests at the same level as last year's.

Value of offices of local business leaders

* Paul Loftin, president and COO of Siskin Steel & Supply Co.: About $5,000

* John Jerman, owner of Office Furniture Warehouse: About $400

* Glenn Morris, president and CEO of M&M Industries: Less than $15,000*

* Mr. Morris contacted the Times Free Press and later said his figures were inaccurate and asked they not be used in the story. A reporter offered to update the information for Mr. Morris, but he had not responded as of press time Thursday.

Other notable pieces of furniture going into the mayor's office include:

* A Councill Contract conference table: $7,578

* Twenty conference chairs: $16,057

* A custom Councill Contract credenza: $9,173

* Bid of Office Coordinators Inc.; $88,687 (includes the mayor's office, conference room and filing room)

Source: Hamilton County records

During county budget hearings this year, commissioners listened as departments turned in level funding requests after commissioners admonished them not to ask for more.

Mr. Brooks said the mayor's office furnishings had been in the budget long before the recession hit.

Commissioner Richard Casavant said refurbishing the mayor's office makes sense now "because the courthouse is being remodeled, and the mayor meets with people all across the world, including sometimes in his office, and I think his office ought to reflect the prestigious office he holds."

The county paid for the furniture with bond money set aside for courthouse renovations, Mr. Ramsey said.

What others spent

Mr. Ramsey wasn't the only elected official to receive an office makeover as part of the courthouse renovations. County Clerk Bill Knowles said he spent roughly $10,000 on his office furniture, including desk, chairs and a credenza.

County Clerk and Master Lee Akers said he didn't spend any money on his own office, but he did spend about $135,000 on furniture and shelving for his employees.

The commission gave the contract for the mayor's furniture to Office Coordinators in a second round of bidding.

The first time the county opened bids in April, the low bidder was My Office Products, which offered to provide the furniture for $141,184. Mr. Leamon said the price was much higher than county officials expected, and the bids were scrapped.

"I know it was higher than what we wanted to spend," Mr. Leamon said. "We went back and changed the fabric. It was over budget, over what we were comfortable spending."

To get a comparison of what local executives spend on furniture, the Chattanooga Times Free Press asked several local business leaders what they spent on their offices. They were not asked to comment specifically on Mr. Ramsey's furniture and were told only that an elected official had purchased it.

Out of three company CEOs and owners interviewed, not one said he spent more than $15,000.

Later, Siskin Steel & Supply Co. COO Paul Loftin and Glenn Morris, president and CEO of M&M Industries, asked the Times Free Press not to use their names and, in the case of Mr. Morris, the estimated cost. The Times Free Press declined their requests in the interest of providing a fair comparison for its readers.

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