published Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Transparency urged on Hamilton County Commissioner' spending

Hamilton County Commissioner Expenditures
Hamilton County Commissioner Expenditures

When Hamilton County Commissioner Marty Haynes was campaigning for his District 3 seat, he called for commissioners' discretionary expenditures to be posted in real-time on the county's website.

That was more than a year ago. There's still no website. And Haynes said details about how commissioners spend their combined $900,000 per year in discretionary funds is still not public enough.

Haynes doesn't suspect any wrongdoing but said the public should know how tax dollars are being spent.

"I know the standard response is if someone wants to see a report, they can get a copy. But I think sometimes we [in government] make it harder than it needs to be to get information."

Each budget year, commissioners vote to give themselves $8,000 apiece for expenses and discretionary money and $100,000 apiece for capital outlays, according to Hamilton County Finance Department records.

Capital outlay typically refers to money used to make improvements to buildings and other physical assets. But historically, commissioners also have used the capital outlay money to fund school programs or donate to nonprofit or religious organizations.

Assistant Administrator of Finance Al Kiser did not return phone calls this week to clarify the intended use of the fund. But County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said that while the money is not always spent to fix, improve or construct county buildings, the money is going to worthy causes.

Henry started the year with $128,534, according to county records. Nearly $109,000 of that has been used to fund school projects and athletic programs that aren't included in the schools' budgets. Another $2,700 has gone to community groups like Boy Scouts of America and Friends of East Brainerd.

"Any of these organizations that receive money, they have to be tax exempt 501(c)3's. Some of these organizations really benefit the community," Henry said.

Haynes said budget season is approaching quickly, and he still supports publishing the fund amounts and expenditures. The majority of commissioners -- including Henry and Haynes -- have said they will vote to give themselves another $100,000 apiece to spend in July.

Chairman Henry said Tuesday he would support publishing the fund balances and expenditures for the public.

"It's their money, and they deserve to know how it's being spent," he said.

July likely will be the first time Haynes receives full discretionary and capital outlay funds.

When Haynes won his seat over appointed incumbent Mitch McClure, the current budget year had started and the District 3 fund had been nearly wiped out.

Haynes took office with $1,378 in his fund. McClure had spent more than $100,000 before him. After buying some tables for a local nonprofit and a field trip for Hixson High School, Haynes now has $778.

Commissioner Fred Skillern has more money than any of his fellow commissioners. He started this year with $433,574 and has spent more than $128,000 so far. All but $6,500 went to schools in his district.

Skillern said Tuesday he uses his fund almost exclusively for schools and public safety. He's committed $50,000 to the Sale Creek High School football program, $40,000 for Daisy Elementary playground equipment and $23,800 for lights on the Soddy-Daisy High School football field.

Skillern said his conservative nature is why he maintains such a large balance.

"My first year as a commissioner, one of the volunteer fire departments came to me for $4,000 to match a grant, and I didn't have $4,000. I'm not going to let that happen again," Skillern said.

Skillern said he would support voting for discretionary funds again, unless other parts of the budget need the money.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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