published Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Hamilton County Commissioners OK putting discretionary spending records online

Hamilton County Commissioners during a commission meeting in this file photo.
Hamilton County Commissioners during a commission meeting in this file photo.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ONLINE

The county's web page can be found at www.hamiltontn.gov/commission

Hamilton County Commissioner Marty Haynes can put a check mark on his 2012 campaign to-do list.

Commissioners unanimously voted Wednesday to make information about how they spend a combined $900,000 in budgeted discretionary funds available online on the county's website. They also will release quarterly reports on paper.

Each year, commissioners are budgeted $100,000 apiece to spend on schools, government projects or nonprofit organizations. What they don't spend can be carried over from year to year.

In Tennessee, the practice is unique to Hamilton County. According to state consultants, no other county or city allows commissioners to personally direct more than $5,000 a year.

Good government groups have criticized the practice as being too loose, saying commissioners could stockpile funds and use them during an election year to garner political support. And Haynes campaigned on bringing more transparency to the policy when he won his District 3 seat from former Commissioner Mitch McClure.

On Wednesday, Haynes said he always thought the measure would pass -- commissioners just needed to have the conversation.

"I kind of thought once we got the discussion started, it would go that way. Nobody ever voiced anything against it. I just happened to be the guy who championed the cause," Haynes said.

Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, a nonprofit, nonpartisan good government group, said posting funds online is a good effort, but the policy could still use a second look.

"It's certainly positive, maybe not as good as regulating it more, but publicizing it is a good step," Williams said. "Certainly making it public knowledge to the whole community is a positive thing. Then certainly, the public can say, 'this man or woman is just doing frivolous things for show.' They can take that into account for the next election."

What needs discussion is the annual $900,000 involved, Williams said.

"I think there's some value in the commissioners knowing their areas supposedly better than the other commissioners and perhaps with some specifics better than the department heads or budget makers," Williams said. "I think the full commission should evaluate [the amount] and determine what percentage [of the budget] it is and consider that."

Commission Chairman Fred Skillern said last month he would welcome a discussion about the discretionary fund policy, in terms of how the money could be spent and how much money commissioners would get. But that talk would happen in the spring when the county is making next year's budget.

Haynes said Wednesday he still thinks the program is a benefit to residents and should continue.

"I think it's a good program that helps fund projects at schools that are not funded in other ways," Haynes said.

He also said the discretionary fund program helps commissioners stay in touch with schools in their districts.

Skillern said Wednesday the commission's first quarterly report would be available on Nov. 6, at the next scheduled commission meeting.

Mayor Jim Coppinger said last month it would take county staff a short time to get information posted to the website.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 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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