published Monday, March 26th, 2012

Hamilton County facing tight budget for the 2013 fiscal year

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during the County Commission meeting after releasing his 2011-12 fiscal budget that included laying off 37 people.
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.
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Hamilton County’s budget season is cranking up, and Mayor Jim Coppinger says he’s asking elected officials and department heads to keep their belts cinched tight.

Coppinger said he’s not sure what the numbers will look like for the 2013 fiscal year that starts July 1, but he predicts it will be another lean one — though not likely one requiring another round of layoffs. Last year the county cut more than 50 positions and laid off 36 workers, though about 10 were rehired in different positions.

This year, he said he hopes there will be enough money to boost compensation for county employees, who have gone without a raise since fiscal 2009.

“The goal of this budget is to be able to present a budget without a tax increase, and also to be able to look at some type of compensation for employees,” Coppinger said.

Proposed budgets will be submitted to Coppinger in the next few weeks, and serious talks about priorities will take place in May, the mayor said.

“We’ve got numbers in mind, but we’re waiting to see people, how they justify their requests in the budget,” Coppinger said. “You really simplify it by wants and needs.”

He sent a memo to department heads, agencies and elected officials in late January urging fiscal restraint.

“While I’m sure you are aware of the tough economic times we are experiencing, I want to take this opportunity to remind us all of our responsibility to show fiscal restraint in what we do,” Coppinger’s Jan. 26 memo stated. “Therefore, it’s imperative that we keep all of our cost to the bare minimum necessary to do our jobs and make every effort to hold budgets to no more than last year’s amount.”

Even so, officials from the two largest county departments — schools and the sheriff’s office — already are talking publicly about additional needs. Last year’s total budget was $625.8 million, with schools receiving $373.4 million and the sheriff’s fund about $27 million.

Sheriff Jim Hammond said he understands Coppinger’s position and knows county commissioners have clearly stated they’re unwilling to raise taxes. But in January, before Coppinger’s memo made the rounds, Hammond told the mayor and commissioners that he needs $2.5 million more — about 8 percent — in the coming fiscal year.

“We’re probably down eight or nine officers on the road,” Hammond said Friday. “Food prices have gone up. Gas prices have gone up. It affects us quite a bit.”

Housing inmates in the Hamilton County Jail, one of the sheriff’s duties, costs $75,000 a day, he also noted.

School Superintendent Rick Smith has spoken repeatedly about population growth putting pressure on elementary schools. Last month, he told commissioners a state-mandated teacher raise could cost an additional $3.5 million.

By law, the county may not reduce funding for schools from the previous year’s level.

“There are a number of things we think we can make improvements in. Certainly education is one,” Coppinger said. He wouldn’t say whether he foresees a budget hike for the schools.

The county’s general services departments — which include public works, health and parks and recreation, among others — haven’t been under a hiring freeze, but each vacant position is reviewed to see if it must be filled, Coppinger said.

Another pressing — and potentially costly — issue for the county is finding another industrial park site for new businesses, Coppinger said. Fewer than 100 acres remain uncommitted in Enterprise South industrial park, where the Volkswagen assembly plant is located, and the last undeveloped tract of the Bonny Oaks industrial park sold this year.

“We have a shortage of land to promote,” Coppinger said. “We’re in the market trying to find that next industrial site, and that’s usually pretty expensive for us. We’re talking hundreds of acres.”

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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