County commissioners this morning said they want to renew a decades-old sales tax agreement with the city of Chattanooga. But city officials aren't interested in renewing the revenue sharing pact, and Chairman Larry Henry conceded that today's vote doesn't put the county any closer to its goal of seeing the agreement extended.
City Councilwoman Deborah Scott, who’s been talking one-on-one with Commissioner Jim Fields about the agreement, spoke at the commission meeting and indicated that other options might be explored.
She said one of the big sticking points is that not all of the cities in Hamilton County participate in the agreement.
“Of the agencies that are funded, many of them provide services countywide and one of the issues that I find and many in my district find that are inequitable is the fact that this sales tax agreement only has five of the 10 municipalities participating in it,” she said.
Later, County Attorney Rheubin Taylor clarified that all 10 municipalities signed a subsequent amendment to the sales tax agreement, but Scott said only five actually participate. County Administrator of Finance Louis Wright said he was not so sure, saying it was his understanding all 10 contribute.
The agreement, which expires in May, is used to pay for jointly funded agencies between the county and city, such as the public library and health department. The county would lose more than $10 million if the agreement is allowed to sunset. Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said the agreement will expire.
Scott and the commission engaged in a lengthy debate about tax inequities between the city and the county, with the councilwoman fielding several questions from commissioners.
At one point, Mayor Jim Coppinger asked Scott if there was a plan to immediately ensure financing for Erlanger hospital, the Regional Planning Agency and the Health Department.
Scott said the Health Department is a county function; she said during the course of the discussions about the sales tax that she and Fields have been examining what agencies are required to be funded, who is required to fund them, and what agencies are not required but still essential to local government. She questioned whether the city pays more than its fair share for these services.
“These are things that I think need to be worked out and discussed prior to signing a long-term agreement,” Scott said. “We need some equity and we don’t mind paying a fair share but we can’t subsidize another share that is not offered.”
Scott said there may be an opportunity for alternative plans.
“Is that a yes?” Coppinger asked her.
“It’s a shall we work on this,” Scott said.
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 ...