published Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Coppinger facing multiple challenges


by Dan Whisenhunt

Barely two months into his job as Hamilton County mayor, Jim Coppinger faces three key challenges as old agreements expire and the county and the school board argue about how to spend tax money designated for schools.

As mayor, it’s Coppinger’s job to put together the budget for the fiscal year that starts June 1.

Depending on how the issues are resolved, Coppinger could be facing a year with higher expenses and millions less in revenue.

Factors he will have to consider:

n Renegotiating a contract with Corrections Corporation of America to operate the Silverdale Detention Center, a minimum security penal farm. The county paid CCA $12.8 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, according to the county auditor’s office. County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said CCA asked for a 5 percent contract increase, which could cost an additional $641,599 per year. Henry said the county in the past has negotiated for a lower rate.

n If a decades-old sales tax agreement with Chattanooga is allowed to expire in May, the county could lose more than $10 million in revenue it uses to fund agencies such as the public library and the planning agency.

n A fight for control of money generated by payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreements. The incentive agreements allow big businesses, such as Volkswagen, to pay only the schools portion of property taxes. The school system wants to use $6 million it expects from Volkswagen to balance its budget, but most county commissioners want to earmark PILOT money for school construction.

Coppinger insists he isn’t daunted by the road ahead. With trademark optimism, the former Chattanooga fire chief and county commissioner notes he’s been here before.

“I think the experience I’ve had before, having been an administrator in government, has prepared me well for the job,” Coppinger said. “Again, there’s a lot of competent staff people that are experienced and have a wealth of information to pass on, and all of them are contributing.”

Coppinger repeatedly has said he does not want to discuss the tax agreement in the media. He also doesn’t want to divulge his negotiations with CCA, but he said he’s coming close to a resolution on the CCA contract.

Coppinger also is confident the school board and the county will come to a decision on the PILOT money.

He said nothing came as a surprise and that his predecessor, Claude Ramsey, left the county in good hands with a competent staff.

“Claude did a fabulous job,” Coppinger said. “There wasn’t anything unexpected.”

Henry said the challenges are formidable, but he also said he thinks things will work themselves out. Henry has appointed a committee to work on the sales tax issue with the city, and the talks currently are centered on one-on-one meetings between Commissioner Jim Fields and City Councilwoman Deborah Scott. Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield predicts the agreement likely will expire in May.

Commissioners and school board members have agreed to meet March 15 to try to work through their differences on the PILOT money.

“I think the CCA agreement is being finalized now, and I’m sure that it will be coming back to the commission very soon,” Henry said. “I think that’s one area that’s pretty well being worked out.”

Commissioner Tim Boyd said Coppinger is fortunate to have Ramsey’s staff behind him.

“I just think that comes with the job,” Boyd said. “I don’t think anything is insurmountable. I think the mayor of Hamilton County has the best staff in the state to help him through all of that.”

Boyd said the commission is “being as proactive as we can” with the PILOT issue.

Fields said Coppinger already has let the commission take some of the pressure off regarding the sales tax issue and said the commission is also taking the lead on resolving its differences with the school board.

“I think he’s dealing with a lot of issues, but I think he’s taking it one step at a time,” Fields said. “I don’t think it’s too burdensome for him.”

Graham said Coppinger is “doing an excellent job.”

“He’s got a board of commissioners here to help him,” he said.

“He certainly has some major questions to be resolved,” Commissioner Warren Mackey said. “At the same time, he is a studious person who will do the research and talk with enough people so he will come forward with coherent answers.”

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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