published Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Increases proposed in Hamilton County budget

Commissioner Fred Skillern talks during a Hamilton County Commission meeting.
Commissioner Fred Skillern talks during a Hamilton County Commission meeting.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
WHAT'S NEXT

Hamilton County Schools officials will present their budget to county commissioners on Thursday at 1 p.m.

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    Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond speaks to Times Free Press editorial board members.
    Photo by Patrick Smith.
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When it comes to budget proposals, Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern has a simple measure for success: Start with last year's figure — and lower it if possible.

"Zero is good; lower is better," Skillern said of budget increases Monday as commissioners heard from 40 government officials or nonprofit groups seeking to gain pieces of Hamilton County's 2014 fiscal pie.

Despite Skillern's sentiments, only 16 of those petitioning for slices Monday met the veteran commissioner's standard.

Overall, requests for those who petitioned came in $3.4 million higher than the $63.1 million approved for the same organizations in this fiscal year.

The greatest requested increase came from Sheriff Jim Hammond. He's asking for a combined $31.2 million to cover operations and capital improvements. That figure is $2.5 million higher than the current budget year. Hammond said the increase was needed to replace aging patrol cars, hire more school resource officers, add clerk positions and wrangle rising food costs at the jail.

Commissioners had no questions for Hammond after his presentation.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said that's probably because no one was surprised.

"I think some of them sort of expected it. [Hammond] gave an explanation of it that was pretty forthright," Henry said.

Hammond and the commission butted heads several times this year over budgeting issues at the sheriff's office. Hammond exceeded his allotted salary budget by $220,000 this year, according to a recently released audit. And commissioners said last week they expect all county departments -- including Hammond's -- to expect no change in budgets.

Commissioners did have words for Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson, though.

Thompson is seeking an additional $336,000 to cover declining revenues at her office, and Commissioner Joe Graham was not pleased to hear it.

In March, the commission returned $192,000 to Thompson, which she had paid to the county in excess fees over the last 11 years.

Graham wanted to know Monday why Thompson had not cut her staff and was still having trouble making ends meet.

Thompson said she had cut positions and reduced her budget by $140,000, but it wasn't enough.

"You're still asking for $300,000 on top of the $140,000? It's still not bringing a balanced budget," Graham said Monday.

The largest requested budget reduction came from Assessor of Property Bill Bennett's office. He's requesting $3.6 million, which is $647,000 less than last year. Bennett said the reduction came because 2013 was a reappraisal year, and he needed all hands on deck. Now that the reappraisal is over, his budget can return to normal operating levels, he said.

Commissioners only heard requests Monday. Mayor Jim Coppinger ultimately will pull the budget together and present it to the commission for final approval.

"This is the very early infant stages of this. We've got to assimilate all this information. ... We'll probably have it passed by June 30. I don't think we'll have any problems with it," Henry said.

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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