Roy Exum: How Much Is Enough?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I’ve never sat through a county budget workshop before and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is a superb teacher. On Tuesday he was explaining such mysteries as the Debt Service Fund, why we truly need an Open Data Portal ($125K), and that our General Obligation Debt is now $220,636,000. If he said it once he repeated it over 17 more times. “This is a request. This is not what we’ll take before the Commission.”

Had it been – and every request was granted – the County Commission would be asked for $732,242,000 when the finished FY 2018 budget is expected to be given to the nine commissioners on June 7. That’s $52.6 million more than the factual 2017 budget, a 7.7 percent increase, and to make everything balance would require 60.9-cent tax increase. “I can promise that we definitely won’t have a 60-cent tax increase,” he said, yet the gnawing feeling is there will be a smaller increase by the time the FY budget is approved.

The truth is the fact there has been no tax increase for the last 12 years has Hamilton County gasping for breath. While Hamilton County has not raised property taxes, the CPI-U (Consumer Price Index-Urban) has risen 44 cents higher than the current tax rate for the county -- $2.76652 – and the commissioners are mindful any tax increase will become re-election fodder. “So now comes the question no one can answer: ‘How much is enough to do what we need to do?’” the mayor said, adding, and “Governmental accounting is the most fun in the world to deal with!”

My lands, if the county gives the public schools the entire $450,140,000 that the School Board has requested, that alone would be a $24.8 million increase over FY2017 and necessitate a 27.6-cent tax increase (Every penny of a tax increase right now would put another $930,000 in the county coffers every year)

The sheriff’s office may be the best-operated arm of the county, yet it also may be in the worst shape. Jim Hammond has begged for more jailers for his overflowing jail, and now he has almost 20 positions that need to be filled. He needs to put six more resource officers in the schools, so his $4.8 million increase is easy to see. It is only a matter of time until some federal judge forces the county to do something over the massive overcrowding in the jail – designed to hold a maximum of 500 prisoners, and often there are an additional 100 or more.

After last week’s presentation of the Department of Education needs (61 percent of the total proposed budget) and yesterday’s other departments, there is little fat that I can see, yet I worry more about what I can’t see …

* -- We should have broken ground on a new jail by now but that’s going to take $100 million. It is insane and inhumane that no action has been taken by now. I can’t find a sniff in the budget about our duty to our fellow man, though a prisoner he may well be. Our County Commission should attack this chore immediately. Some mother’s child is in that jail. What we are allowing to happen is not right.

* -- We have $230 million in school maintenance overdue and it gets worse by the day. I see no more than routine line items when there ought to be an urgency. I am pleased we have spent $138 million on school buildings over the past five years but – right now, today – we do not have one school coming out of the ground. In Nashville there is $192 million in new school construction today. There should be money being set aside for new schools in the future. There is not.

* -- We have the state Department of Education that is taking over five of our schools. If successful, such idiocy will cost us heavily. Just the 2,300 children in the hostile takeover will take a quarter-million dollars per year away from the HCDE and we can’t stand that. The state will pay no rent and/or upkeep on the five school buildings involved, has no bus service, and many Chattanooga teachers will most definitely lose their jobs. Think about the sheer expense that Commissioner Candice McQueen, on a whim, will cost our county. Yet not a word about the impending doom in the budget. (In five years the state Department Of Education blew through $500 million in federal money in Memphis but this week the education blog “Chalk beat” reported “no significant progress.”)

* -- Don’t forget: The Department of Education has another six-figure item that is being ignored. Next month the School Board hopes to name a new superintendent. We know it is coming. We have known it was coming since March a year ago. I can’t find it in the budget but my thinking is around $250,000 when all is said and done in the next six weeks. Where does that quarter-million grow on trees?

* -- Knoxville is opening a 72-hour hospital to take the mentally-ill instead of the county jail. Such a facility here will save millions in maximum security costs now costing $85,000 per day in Hamilton County. Cities all across America are doing this and having brilliant success. Not a line in the FY 2018 budget.

* -- Curiously, Mayor Coppinger slid a graph of the Hotel-Motel Fund near the back of the budget and it is projected to reach about $7,400,000 in revenue, up some $400,000 over last year. The problem is, that is far and away too much money to give exclusively to the Visitors Bureau. “How much is enough?” The truth is that today Chattanooga sells itself and the misuse of money is ridiculous. This is where I would offset the “hostile takeover” and pay for the embarrassing methodology of hiring the superintendent … after interviewing nine finalists for an hour each, the School Board will bring five final-finalists here so four can have a free vacation. Lord have mercy.

* -- Some are hoping to use a chunk of the Hotel-Motel money to build a $24 million County Sports Complex next to Howard School. Public-school athletic facilities are notoriously bad and it would serve a number of schools. There is not a line in the FY 2018 budget for any athletic facilities.

* -- It would cost between $1 million to $2 million to eradicate any and all “fees” being charged in public schools when, in fact, it is “double taxation” – the taxpayers support the schools, yet with every fee the citizens are “taxed” again. Not a mention in the budget. One family pays in excess of $2,000 to participate in sports and other activities.

* -- We know there are a large number of children who do not eat – or eat poorly -- when schools are not in session. We have 42 “free lunch” schools. Experts promise our inner-city grades will climb if we pay more attention to day care and welfare of children caught in poverty. Some schools need a 12-month platform. No mention in the budget.

Reality can’t take many more holidays.

Royexum@aol.com


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