Hamilton County cannot afford to fund dozens of social service agencies on its own if the sales tax agreement expires, the county's chief financial officer said Thursday.
"We won't have the money to do that," said Louis Wright.
The 45-year-old tax pact expires in May. Chattanooga and Hamilton County must decide whether to renew, renegotiate or scrap it. If it expires, almost $11 million that now goes into county coffers would belong to Chattanooga and surrounding municipalities.
And without that money, County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he's not sure the county could afford to help support more than two dozen social service and quasi-governmental agencies such as the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library, Erlanger hospital, the Hamilton County Health Department and Emergency Services.
"It's going to be hard," Henry said Thursday, adding he hopes the city and county can work out an agreement.
Wright said jointly funded agencies probably would need to talk to the city, since it would receive the lion's share of the sales tax revenue.
But it could get complicated in a hurry, he said. Health department and emergency services employees are on the county payroll and get county pensions, he said.
JOINTLY FUNDED AGENCIES
These agencies are supposed to receive funds from the city-county sales tax agreement:
Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department
Speech and Hearing Center
Joe Johnson Mental Health Center
Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
Hamilton County Emergency Services
Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency
Scenic Cities Beautiful Commission
Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Public Library
Social Services Administration
Family and Children's Services
Children's Advocacy Center
Community Research Council
Bethlehem Community Center
WTCI Public Television
Regional History Museum
Bessie Smith Hall
Source: 2001 sales-tax agreement amendment
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said there is no doubt several of the quasi-governmental agencies will be funded even if the tax agreement expires.
But he said other agencies involved in social services may not. He did not give examples, but he said some people have questioned whether either government should support some agencies.
"I don't know if either one [the city or the county] is required to fund them," he said.
county takes first steps
The County Commission took some of its first public steps toward looking at the sales tax agreement Thursday by appointing Commissioners Jim Fields, Henry, Warren Mackey and Fred Skillern to a committee to talk with the city.
"We will begin work on this immediately," Henry said.
Henry said Fields, the chairman, would be in charge of setting up the meetings. He said the meetings between the committee and city officials will be public.
After Henry made his announcement, County Mayor Jim Coppinger said his staff has been in talks with city officials about the agreement.
"I think it would be helpful if the staff is able to brief each one of you on the committee and any other commissioner that wants to be briefed on where we are," Coppinger said.
Coppinger called it a "delicate situation" and urged commissioners not to make negative comments about the sales tax agreement in the media.
"This should play out in a professional manner," Coppinger said.
Coppinger said he is confident the city and county can come to a resolution.
"I know it's the will of this body to see if we can get a sales tax agreement pushed forward," Coppinger said. "I think there's ample time to do so."
watch and see
Officials with some agencies funded under the agreement said Thursday they can only wait and see what happens.
Don Allen, director of Hamilton County Emergency Services, said he is not sure how some of his funding will come to him next fiscal year. His department receives about $2.1 million annually through the tax pact.
"I have every confidence the service will take place," he said. "I just don't know where the funding will come from."
Erlanger receives $3 million a year as part of its $542 million operating budget, Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles said. She said the money helps pay for uncompensated care.
Phil Acord, president and CEO of the Children's Home/Chambliss Shelter, said his funding already has been sliced from $400,000 last year to $200,000 this year.
"The question is, can the county continue to fund the program?" he asked. "If not, can we go to the city?"
Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...
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