published Friday, February 25th, 2011

Hamilton: County commissioner defends letter to schools superintendent

by Dan Whisenhunt


Commissioners plan another meeting with school board members on the PILOT money on March 15 at 5 p.m.

Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey said Thursday that a letter he sent to Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales, detailing county commissioners' concerns with the school system, was not disrespectful.

Scales indicated during a school board finance committee meeting on Tuesday that he was offended by the tone of the letter.

It's the latest episode in a struggle about who will control millions generated in payment in lieu of taxes agreements, known as PILOTs. To attract businesses such as Volkswagen, the county often turns to PILOTs, which state that businesses don't have to pay full property taxes for a certain number of years, but they must pay the share of property tax that is slated for schools.

The county wants to keep the PILOT money and designate it for school construction, but the school board wants to use it for general operations.

Scales and Board of Education attorney Scott Bennett sent letters to county officials last week, saying that withholding the funds would be "illegal." School board member Rhonda Thurman said during the board finance committee meeting that she did not appreciate the tone of those letters.

The letter Mackey sent to Scales contains comments from commissioners Mitch McClure and Tim Boyd. Mackey sent the letter before a contentious Feb. 14 meeting about the PILOT funds.

In the letter, Boyd told Scales the school board spends too much of its budget on central office expenses.

"Run the central office lean and place the savings from less central office cost back into the classroom, making sure our front-line educators have adequate funding for paper, books, markers, etc.," Boyd wrote.

Scales said the commissioners were overstepping their bounds.

"Our board is the duly democratically elected body that has the responsibility of managing the school system," Scales said.

Mackey said he believes his portions of the letter were civil. He wrote the letter's introduction and had that read into the record Thursday.

McClure and Boyd also defended their comments to Scales.

"I don't mean it to be disrespectful," Boyd said. "What I'm telling them is that I don't think their office is run efficiently."

Commissioner Joe Graham, who initially proposed withholding the PILOT money, said he hasn't intended to offend anybody.

"I don't want to come off as aggressive or disrespectful. I think we do need another meeting," Graham said.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

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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jpo3136 said...

Condescending and micromanaging beyond the scope of the Commissioner's elected, not self-appointed, authority is not what we expect. Commissioners need to stay in their lane.

Their conduct so far, particularly in light of their self-annointing, quasi-lawful backdoor deals since November, is totally unacceptable.

Commissioners, get it together. You are not to act like the Mayor of Chattanooga. We need leadership, not more reprehensible selfishness.

I continue to believe that the only way to get some action on this PILOT money is for the School Board to reject all six million dollars of this money. If the Commission thinks that what they're doing is right, when it is obviously not on many levels, then let them wear it. Give them what they want ten times over.

Those PILOT taxes will eventually be found to be just that: taxes. And, when it's determined that these tax sums are actually windfalls, there will be significant debt to pay to the state. By giving the Commissioners what they want now, the School Board would be containing that problem and foisting the responsibility for that ailment back on the Commission.

Denying the definition of taxes is a lawyerly trick which will land us into trouble later. Belittling, instead of leading by example, is not what we expect from these entrenched commercial buddies who somehow got themselves wedged into political office. The School Board appears to be better led and more effective and carrying out its scope of responsibility. The County Commission would do well to learn from then, particularly in the area of the lawful acquisition and transfer of power.

No one is interested in what the County Commission has to say after that despicable business-buddy appointing nonsense last November.

February 25, 2011 at 6:24 a.m.
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