published Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Hamilton County fee offices exceed forecast

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Hamilton County Commissioner Bill Hullander participates in a county commission meeting in this file photo.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Ten million bucks may be a drop in Hamilton County's $643 million bucket, but officials say money generated by the county's five fee-collecting offices makes a big difference at budget time.

Fee offices -- a loose name for a group that includes the Clerk & Master, Circuit Court Clerk, County Clerk, County Register and County Trustee -- collect fees from residents who interact with their offices.

Those fees are put toward operating the individual offices, but by law any money left over -- what the business world would call profit -- is returned to the county's general fund.

This year, that figure is $10.4 million -- about $500,000 more than expected.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger says that's an indicator the local economy is strong.

"That's good. It just shows that there is growth in this community," Coppinger said.

During the budget-making process, the mayor's staff tries to make "conservative projections" for how much fee offices will return to patch holes in the budget.

The bulk of the excess fee revenue came from Trustee Bill Hullander's office, because his office collects property taxes for the county and other municipalities. Hullander keeps a 2 percent commission on those taxes and uses part of that money to run his office. What he doesn't need is returned.

This year, he turned in $6.9 million, a $400,000 bump from what Hullander generated in fiscal year 2012 and nearly $300,000 over what he was projected to produce.

The overage was largely a result of growth and new property taxes, Coppinger said.

Second in line was County Clerk Bill Knowles, whose office reeled in $1.6 million, also about $400,000 over what was projected and a $244,000 increase over last year.

County Register Pam Hurst turned in $1.3 million, $400,000 more than last year, and $300,000 more than was projected.

Only Clerk & Master Lee Akers did not meet projections. He was expected to have $1.1 million in excess but turned in only $570,000.

Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson met her projection -- but it was zero.

Hamilton County Assistant Finance Administrator Al Kiser said the court clerks sometimes have a harder time with collections than the register, clerk or trustee. Court clerks are sometimes dealing with indigent residents or those accused of crimes.

"The clerks of courts are trying to collect fees from a different clientele. They don't have as much control over their revenues," Kiser said.

Kiser said Tuesday without the $10 million in excess fees, some county services would take hits.

He likened it to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County sales tax agreement, which expired in May 2011 leaving a large budget hole.

"That was $10 million we had to cut out of the budget, and approximately 50 positions were laid off," Kiser said, adding that not all the positions were filled when they were cut from the budget.

"If we lost [the excess fees] we would have to make some expense cuts."

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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