published Friday, June 15th, 2012

Hamilton County budget includes ambulance fee hike

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is seen in this file photo.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is seen in this file photo.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MAGISTRATES

Hamilton County Commissioners voted to extend the contracts of two judicial commissioners, Sharetta Smith and Randall Russell, by six months. Judicial commissioners, often called magistrates, set bonds and issue warrants in the jail. Commissioners decided to extend two of the four annual contracts to restore staggered terms.

Hamilton County commissioners are now reviewing a $642.3 million budget proposal that includes a 3 percent pay raise for employees and no property tax increase.

But County Mayor Jim Coppinger's budget does include a 45 percent hike in fees for anyone who uses the county's ambulance service.

Coppinger presented the 2013 fiscal budget to commissioners Thursday. They have two weeks to analyze it before a scheduled vote on June 28.

The 2013 fiscal year begins July 1.

The budget is up more than $16 million -- about 2.5 percent -- over the current one.

"Five million of this increase comes as a result of [property tax] reappraisals that will be coming about this year," Coppinger said. "The remaining $11 million will come as a result of the Hamilton County Department of Education's budget, which receives no -- and I emphasize 'no' -- additional funding from the county government's portion."

The $11 million includes additional state funding, money from property tax growth and money from PILOT and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Payment in lieu of taxes agreements, known as PILOTs, often are given to new, major businesses to lure them to the area, including Volkswagen. Under the agreements, 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 goes to schools.

By law, the school system also is automatically guaranteed a percentage of any property tax growth.

STEM money comes from a combination of federal, state and local sources.

The projected revenue for general county government will go toward 3 percent across-the-board employee raises, increased contributions to the health care fund and public safety, Coppinger said. The county employs about 1,860 workers.

Each department will be charged an extra 7.5 percent for the health insurance fund, an administrative fee that hasn't been increased in two years.

As a result of that increase and an additional $180,000 for fuel costs, the recommended budget for the sheriff's department is up about $300,000. Still, that's about $1.55 million shy of what Sheriff Jim Hammond requested.

As part of the budget, the property assessor's office also will receive almost $600,000 to cover the costs of next fiscal year's state-mandated property reappraisal.

The budget recommends one new position -- a gang prosecutor in the district attorney's office. By law, the county must also provide 75 percent of that allocation to the public defender's office.

Finance Administrator Louis Wright said the county also is increasing its capital outlay to $3.7 million to meet public safety needs, including security services for the juvenile court detention unit, new ambulances, chairs for criminal courtrooms and new technology.

Though the budget contains no tax increase, Emergency Management Service transportation fees -- which pay for ambulance service -- will increase by 45 percent in an attempt to raise about $1.3 million.

The county runs emergency ambulance services for the unincorporated areas and all municipalities except East Ridge. So far in fiscal 2012, which ends June 30, the county has lost at least $1.2 million in EMS transportation costs, while the department's overall budget is less than $10 million.

Transportation fees haven't been increased in 61/2 years, Coppinger said. "We're trying to get this to where it breaks even," he said.

The breakdown of those who used the ambulance service includes about 22 percent who are private payers and another 78 percent who have private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, Coppinger said.

In Thursday's meeting, Commissioner Warren Mackey said the budget contains some "hidden things that concern me," naming the school system as an example.

"It's creating a lot of heartburn and causing me a lot of soul searching. Some of the departments will be looking for additional resources," Mackey said in the meeting.

Coppinger objected to any suggestion that he is trying to hide anything.

"There's absolutely, positively nothing that's hidden in this budget," he said. "Many decisions Mr. Mackey alluded to are decisions made by the board of education on that level."

Mackey later said he didn't mean to imply that the mayor and his staff weren't being transparent.

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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