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Will Denami Lobbyist for Hamilton County

Hamilton County is planning to put more money behind influencing legislative efforts in Nashville.

The county's 2016 proposed budget includes a $40,000 increase in pay for the county's lobbyist, Will Denami. The bump would bring his salary up to $60,000 annually.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said it's not a raise; instead, the county will just be contracting Denami for a longer period of time.

The county historically has paid its lobbyist only while the General Assembly was in session. But now Denami will work between sessions.

"Per month, we are not paying him any more. We are just using him for more months," Coppinger said. "As large as we are, we have to have somebody up there every day."

The county's biggest and most recent lobbying effort aims to gain it a larger share of sales tax revenue collected in municipalities.

Local lawmakers in May said they were mulling a plan that would allow the county to keep more of the sales taxes collected in cities that don't run their own city-run school systems.

Chattanooga gets more than $50 million of its $217 million annual budget from sales tax.

A small slice of the 7 percent statewide sales tax — 4.6 percent of 5.5 percent — is divided among municipalities based on their populations. Larger cities get more than small ones, but counties get none. Chattanooga got $11.9 million in 2014.

Revenue from the 2.25 percent local option tax gets split evenly between counties and municipalities. But municipalities without schools can use that money with no restrictions. Counties must put their half toward education.

The county and Chattanooga made $39.7 million each in 2014 from the local option tax generated in the city. Meanwhile, the county collected about $6 million in stores outside of cities, and half went to schools, leaving $3 million for the general fund.

State Sen. Bo Watson said last month there was nothing in writing yet and described the proposed legislation as more of a concept.

Denami will work on getting legislation to that effect written and passed, but Coppinger said Thursday that wasn't his only job. Denami also looks out for other bills that could harm the county.

"I wouldn't send him up there to just work on one item. If he makes us aware of any one bill that could have an adverse impact, he pays his salary," Coppinger said.

Chattanooga spokeswoman Marissa Bell said Friday sales taxes have been divided evenly for years. And the city wants it to stay that way.

"We hope that the Legislature would take a cautious and inclusive approach when approaching this issue, which could have a substantial impact on the services Chattanooga residents receive," Bell said.

On Thursday, Gov. Bill Haslam told Times Free Press reporters and editors he wasn't sure how the legislation would work statewide. Some cities, such as Knoxville where Haslam was once mayor, already give the county a larger share of sales tax as compensation for operating schools and jails.

"We'll just have to see what legislators do," Haslam said.

Earlier in the week, Haslam urged local leaders to do more than lobby to influence lawmakers. On Thursday he said lawmakers are getting information from more sources than just lobbyists now, and local officials will have a better shot at influencing them in face-to-face meetings.

"People are just as likely to be influenced by a comment on their Facebook page nowadays than by a lobbyist," Haslam said. "The world is changing."

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrog don@timesfreepress.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.

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