published Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger reflects on first year in office

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    Jim Coppinger took the oath of office as Hamilton County mayor on Jan. 11, 2011.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

As Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger approaches the end of his first year, he tallies his effort in private-sector jobs created, relationships built and dollars freed up for schools.

Coppinger is a glass-half-full kind of guy. More than once he's asked county commissioners -- which he himself was last year at this time -- to tamp down negative rhetoric.

"I take pride in the fact that I've spent my entire adult life trying to work with other people," Coppinger said.

Bad press hurts business recruitment efforts, he says.

And he now spends much of his time thinking about how to draw people and jobs to and keep them in Hamilton County, he said.

By his count, the county's efforts, coupled with those of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and the city, have yielded about 2,000 jobs this year. Jobs came from 17 businesses that either opened or expanded in Hamilton County, Coppinger said. Those include about 1,700 with Amazon, a deal he helped finalize in his first months in office.

All told, those efforts amounted to about $121 million in capital investment in the last 11 months, he said.

TAKING THE WHEEL

On Jan. 11, 2011, Coppinger slid into the well-worn seat of Claude Ramsey, a mayor who guided the county through 16 years before being called to serve as deputy to new Gov. Bill Haslam.

Coppinger beat out Ramsey's special assistant, Mike Carter, for the interim mayor appointment. The vote, which deadlocked four times, eventually slid in Coppinger's favor after Commissioner Warren Mackey signaled his intent to change his vote.

"Because of the law, I could talk to Mike Carter but I could not talk to Jim Coppinger," who was a fellow commissioner at the time, Mackey said, referencing the state's Open Meetings Act. "It was not until the state attorney general said we could talk, it allowed me to change my vote."

Ramsey had been a strawberry farmer. Coppinger was a firefighter.

Coppinger climbed the Chattanooga Fire Department ranks, spending his last 81/2 years as chief.

That job gave him the executive experience that prepared him to be interim mayor, he said. As chief he managed about 400 employees.

The county's budget has more zeros and about four times as many people, but Coppinger said his management style is still the same.

Early on, "the goal was to quickly diminish the thought that my goal was to come in here and revamp everything immediately," he said.

County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he sensed the concern from staff.

"There were people he inherited from a previous administration, there were concerns on my part about personnel that would be leaving," Henry said. "I think the replacements [Coppinger] made were good. I felt that those concerns were addressed very quickly."

Coppinger said he slowly began earning the staff's respect.

"A lot of it's by being patient and engaging the staff, and for them to be able to see the results of those discussions," Coppinger said.

BUMPS IN THE ROAD

Coppinger was in the early phase of building those relationships when a decades-old sales tax agreement with Chattanooga expired in May and left about a $10.5 million hole in the county's budget, with total appropriations for fiscal 2012 of $184.2 million.

Mackey said some perceive that city leadership tested Coppinger during that period.

"Six to eight months ago it felt like some of that was less about government and more about a power struggle, let's see how tough this guy is," Mackey said. "That conflict has been complicated from the standpoint that we are trying to create an atmosphere where businesses want to come to Hamilton County."

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    Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks to the Regional Health Council on Monday about possible plans to cut the Health Department's budget if a sales tax agreement with the city of Chattanooga expires. Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Mackey said he thought Coppinger negotiated fairly with the city and in the best interest of all of Hamilton County.

But no deal was reached, and Coppinger said the county could no longer fund a range of community organizations, and Coppinger determined that 36 employees would have to be laid off. Ten of those were later rehired by the county. Overall, Coppinger cut the budget by about $13 million.

"We had no choice but to do what we were required to do," he said.

Coppinger faced other challenging moments. In his first months he led the county's response to a January snowstorm and tornadoes in February and April, renegotiated a contract with the Corrections Corporation of America for Silverdale and picked a new county insurance administrator. The latter choice converted employees from BlueCross BlueShield to Cigna.

"The employees weren't satisfied with that decision," he said, of the switch to Cigna.

Henry, who said he had his own concerns about the switch, knew it would save the county money.

"Even still to this day I get some complaints about Cigna," Henry said. "When you've got that many employees, you're going to have some complaints."

At least one commissioner isn't convinced Coppinger fully has shifted into the executive's role.

"My experience with Jim Coppinger has been arms-length. I don't see a clear direction for the county," Commissioner Tim Boyd said. "There are some infrastructure issues we need to address, and I don't see them as a priority."

Henry said, in his experience, Coppinger has been more communicative with him.

"He's even sought my advice from time to time on issues," Henry said.

SMOOTHING THE COURSE

Coppinger has hired or promoted a handful of high-level county employees to vacancies, including chief of staff Mike Compton.

Compton, who spent years working with now-U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, was Coppinger's boss at the city. Now Compton is supporting Coppinger as mayor.

Both say they work well together, and Compton said he's grown accustomed to his work at the county.

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    Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during the County Commission meeting after releasing his 2011-12 fiscal budget that included laying off 37 people.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

One of the major differences is the county's responsibility to fund schools, a task Coppinger, whose wife is a chorus teacher, said he takes seriously.

After the stormy budget process, Coppinger and county Finance Administrator Louis Wright saw the year's historically low interest rates as an opportunity to refund bonds to free up $50 million for new school construction.

"We started right after we got the budget set and moved on to what we were going to do to fund education," he said.

Coppinger said he wanted to respond to school leaders' requests for help to meet growth projections resulting from new jobs at Volkswagen, Amazon and Alstom.

Overall, Coppinger, who now is running in the Republican primary of the August special election to serve out the remainder of Ramsey's term, said he has gained more insight about the inner workings of the county.

"But there just wasn't any huge surprise," he said. "The good news was that the administrative staff got behind me early on."

Commissioner Chester Bankston, who supported Carter in his bid for mayor last year, said he thinks Coppinger is doing a good job.

"In anything that you go into new, there's things that you just don't know," Bankston said.

Contact staff writer Ansley Haman at ahaman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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