published Saturday, June 15th, 2013

Coppinger's budget misses the mark

  • photo
    Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger comments on a portion of his budget to county commissioners in this file photo.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"A fiscally conservative budget." That's how Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger described his proposed county budget for fiscal year 2013-14 on Thursday.

True, Coppinger's budget calls for no tax increases. But is the announcement of "no new taxes" good enough?

The proposed budget tops out at more than $664.2 million -- almost $5,000 per Hamilton County household. Coppinger's new budget calls for a $21 million increase over last year's budget. That 3.3 percent spending hike dwarfs the 1.3 pecent overall U.S. inflation rate over the past year. In other words, Coppinger is growing the budget over twice as much as should be reasonably expected.

Still, it seems Coppinger and other county leaders are under the impression that if they don't increase taxes, they've done their jobs. Since Hamilton County residents pay far higher county property tax rates than residents in the six bordering Tennessee counties, simply keeping tax rates the same is just not good enough.

Hamilton County's tax rate is 2.7652 percent. The adjacent county with the highest property tax rate is Marion County with a tax rate of less than 2.17 percent. Bradley County's property tax rate is a comparatively miniscule 1.792 percent. At 1.7496, Rhea County resident's property tax rate is less than two-thirds of Hamilton County's toll. (These tax rates reflect only county rates and do not include additional city property taxes.)

These seemingly tiny percentages add up to significant money for residents. Since Tennessee counties collect property taxes on 25 percent of the appraised value of a property, a Hamilton County resident with a $200,000 home pays $1,383 in county property taxes annually. A Bradley County resident would pay just $896 in county taxes on the same $200,000 home -- a difference of nearly $5,000 over the course of a decade.

Many Bradley County residents would argue that the services available to them are just as good as those in Hamilton County (Bradley County schools, for example, are better by most measures), so it makes no sense to pay an additional $5,000 a decade for the "privilege" of living in Hamilton County.

Therein lies the problem for Hamilton County. Since the county has a high tax rate compared to surrounding areas, but doesn't give residents much in the way of additional benefits or amenities as a result of the extra tax dollars they pays, it won't be long before many Hamilton County residents flee for the greener pastures of the surrounding lower-tax counties.

In order to prevent an exodus of Hamilton County residents, Coppinger and the members of the Hamilton County Commission should take a knife to the county's budget and start trimming the fat -- and there's plenty of it.

For example, Coppinger's budget proposal calls for $900,000 of taxpayers' money in discretionary funds for county commissioners to spend on their own pet projects. Given the county's excessive property tax rate and the number of county residents struggling to make ends meet in the tough economy, it's unconscionable to spend tax dollars in such a frivolous and wasteful way.

The budget proposal also calls for $26,500 to buy a 4-door pickup truck for the Recreation Department, $53,000 for new trucks for use at the Enterprise South Nature Park, $8,100 for fitness equipment for the Health Department, $5,000 new for conference room furniture at the Nursing Administration and $1,450 so the county medical examiner can have a new filing cabinet. It seems that some of these budget increases could easily be reduced or eliminated in the name of lowering taxes.

If Coppinger's budget is accepted, the Sheriff's Department will get an additional $2 million next year over the current year's budgeted amount. The Circuit Court clerk's office budget will increase by $337,000, the Chamber of Commerce will get a $600,000 handout to continue its questionable attempts at economic development and the county's giveaway to the Urban League will double from $50,000 to $100,000. In an apparent attempt to keep up with tough job of overseeing all the cash the county is frittering away, the accounting arm of the County Finance Division is even requesting an additional $101,000 for the next fiscal year.

In the context of Hamilton County's high taxes and the litany of questionable expenditures filling the proposed budget, Mayor Coppinger's claim that his budget proposal is "fiscally responsible" seems dubious and even irresponsible.

Hamilton County's leaders have a few short weeks before they need to adopt a new budget. During that time, they need to go to back to the drawing board and get serious about cutting expenses so they can lower taxes. The future of Hamilton County depends on it.

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aae1049 said...

Disappointing and short sided budgeting.

June 15, 2013 at 12:51 a.m.
fairmon said...

$900,000 in discretionary funds or $100,000 each is ludicrous. This is akin to a campaign contribution so the in office commissioner can run around doing favors during a campaign without approval of the other members. The budget increases spending instead of spending the same dollars as last year and reducing cost to off set inflation. What revenue assumptions enable the increase in spending? There is no mention of education or increased support of schools. This budget appears to conclude that every department and every activity within each department is essential.

June 15, 2013 at 7:07 a.m.
Facts said...

When our County "leadership" is comprised of folks like Bill Hullander, Fred Skillern, Bill Bennett, and insert name of the good ole' boy/girl puppet of your choice, nothing based on vision or forethought will ever occur.

There needs to be a challenge to each of these and others who have interests outside their own clique of re-election and running the local politics.

These men are the face of our county and it's not pretty.

June 15, 2013 at 7:43 a.m.
AndrewLohr said...

Shrink the government. What moved me to actually join the Libertarian Party was noticing that schools, parks, welfare, security, and everything else someone said government has to do are in fact already offered by private entities. We could shrink the local schools by paying students $5000 to leave, so for every 8 students who leave, every student left in the system gains a dollar, once the laws are rewritten that way (so schools or systems keep something for students who save money by leaving.)

What filing cabinet costs $1400? But discretionary funds, if all spending is public and perhaps has to be looked at though not approved by someone else, I sort of like. At least it's accountable: "Lois Lerner" not "the IRS." (If I had that, I'd probably hire one or two more police officers with most of it and help churches meet small urgent needs with the rest.)

June 15, 2013 at 8:26 a.m.
klifnotes said...

What moved me to actually join the Libertarian Party was noticing that schools, parks, welfare, security, and everything else someone said government has to do are in fact already offered by private entities.

And those private entities rely heavily on pubic funds, AKA YOUR, MY AND EVERYONE'S TAX DOLLARS. The only difference is the private sector will be very very selective on who can attend their schools, enter their parks, qualify for welfare, security and everything else.

Plus, also read: Why Libertarianism is a cult, By Richard Brenneman

June 15, 2013 at 10:05 a.m.
gypsylady said...

Actually we did get hit with a tax increase. Those of us who had sewer bills jacked up last year know what I'm talking about. Also, by approving the TIF district (I believe every one of them voted for it) they have begun to set us up for higher taxes in the future.

June 15, 2013 at 12:57 p.m.
fairmon said...

I would like to see a county and a city budget that started where each department head started at zero and described exactly what they needed to spend and what they would deliver for the expenditure. What is the cost benefit of each activity? Government should be run like a business but too many politicians say you just can't run government like a business.....Running it like a business doesn't mean it has to be profitable but should provide a good return to the most people.

June 16, 2013 at 4:45 p.m.
retired said...

Mayor Coppinger I think you and your staff will get a raise also, your budget plain needs to be pitched. put it to the working employees of hamilton county grovement except for the few, That sounds like Sheriff Hammond and his Captian's and his Son. I guess Miller Industries are paying Coppinger as well as the Sheriff. I am so glad I don't work for those two any more. Sorry Hamilton County Employees you get the shaft agian.

June 18, 2013 at 10:46 a.m.
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