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Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, in discussing the local school district's fiscal 2018 budget, seemed sympathetic to the district's plight.
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Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger told county commissioners Tuesday it would take a 60.9-cent property tax increase to fund all the requests on the table for the 2018 fiscal year budget.

While he said he did not believe such a tax increase would become a reality, he said it was important for commissioners to participate in budget workshop exercises to weigh whether and how to pay for the county's various needs.

Coppinger broke the 60.9-cent increase into three component needs: 26.7 cents for Hamilton County Schools, 18.2 cents for general fund requests and 16.2 cents for debt service.

Any tax increase recommendation, if one materializes, won't come before the mayor does a comprehensive budget workshop with commissioners June 6. In all, county leaders will consider $732.2 million in requests in the coming weeks, a $53.6 million increase over the 2017 budget.

That includes a balanced $372.8 million budget passed by Hamilton County Board of Education a few weeks ago, along with a list of $24.8 million in unfunded needs.

"If all of those things, in a perfect world, were funded it would require a 26.7-cent property tax increase," Coppinger said of the school system's unfunded priorities alone.

A 26.7-cent tax increase would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $67 more a year. The median value of owner-occupied housing units in Hamilton County is about $158,600, which amounts to about $106 more a year in property taxes.

At the county commission's school budget workshop last week, school board member Tiffanie Robinson voiced expectations about commission support, saying commissioners need to provide explanations if they do not increase funding for the school system.

The general fund portion of the overall budget amounts to $239 million, about $21 million more than the 2017 budget. To pay for $16.7 million of the request would take an 18.2-cent property tax boost.

The last piece of the theoretical 60.9-cent property tax increase puzzle is the 16.2 cents needed to increase the county's capacity to borrow another $155 million for capital projects.

Requests aside, the county is behind the times, according to a historical analysis measuring Hamilton County's tax rate against what it would be if it had kept up with the Consumer Price Index.

"That's where we've kind of lagged behind when people talk about it," Coppinger said.

If the county had kept up with the index, it would have a tax rate 44 cents higher than the $2.7652 per $100 of assessed property value it has levied for the past 10 years, according to the analysis.

If the county commission actually approved a 60.9-cent tax increase, it would mean someone who owned a $100,000 home would pay $842 instead of the $691 they pay now. That amounts to $240 more in property taxes on a median home value of $158,600.

Commissioners said nothing in favor or against any potential tax increase during the workshop.

DISCRETIONARY SPENDING

The prospect of discretionary spending returned to the forefront of budget talks when Commission Vice Chairman Greg Beck asked Tuesday if each county district could have $100,000 in bond money to use for school maintenance or other needs.

"I don't see why that we couldn't have in District 5 [Beck's district] an additional $100,000 for maintenance or for whatever we needed to do a particular school," he said.

While Beck did not label such money as discretionary, it amounts to past special project money assigned to the districts in previous years.

While this makes the third year in a row the mayor has not included commissioner discretionary money, it hasn't been three years since they received $100,000 annually in special project money for their districts.

When Coppinger left it out of the fiscal 2016 budget, six commissioners — Chester Bankston, Tim Boyd, Randy Fairbanks, Jim Fields, Warren Mackey and Sabrena Smedley — amended the budget to put it back, taking it from the county's $90 million reserve fund. They overturned Coppinger's veto of the amended budget to make sure it stayed in.

Special project money didn't quite disappear in fiscal 2017, even if it wasn't in the budget.

Coppinger revealed in January he actually gave commissioners one-time access to $900,000 of the county's credit line to use for bondable debt in fiscal 2017. Unlike county bond issue, commissioners' regular discretionary money cannot be used on school needs because it comes from the county's general fund, the state attorney general has said.

The $900,000 bond money offer did not appear in the 2017 budget as a line item since commissioners were only tapping the county credit line, Coppinger has said. It was a verbal agreement.

Commissioners have squabbled over how the money should be spent once it got down to the $750,000 mark, even as Coppinger urged them to consider the "big picture" to figure out how they wanted to spend the money.

The biggest draw on the credit line was a $150,000 request made by Fields to resurface the Red Bank High School track. The spending came to a screeching halt when Bankston, the commission chairman, asked for $500,000 to redo the athletic track shared by Central High School and Brown Middle School.

The Hamilton County Commission will conduct budget hearings for the county sheriff's office, the Circuit Court clerk and a number of agencies on May 31.

The mayor formally presents the 2018 budget to the commission for a vote on June 7.

Staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress. com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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