Hamiton County Commission receives 2018 budget proposal

By Paul Leach  /  Chattanooga Times Free Press

The Hamilton County Commission has voiced little enthusiasm for hiking property taxes in any way, shape or form.

On Wednesday, Mayor Jim Coppinger formally presented to commissioners the proposed $691.5 million fiscal 2018 budget — which does not call for a tax increase. The commission schedule calls for the body to vote on it on June 21.

The 2018 budget grew $12 million over the 2017 budget.

The overall budget includes $425.7 million for the county’s Department of Education budget, Coppinger said. When combined with capital project money allocated to the school system, education needs amount to 66 percent of the entire county budget.

“That’s a great spend of the taxpayers’ dollars, investing in our young people, investing in our workforce,” Coppinger said.

The school budget grew by $8 million thanks to dedicated growth money from increased tax revenues and state funding. Local revenues account for $5.7 million of the total.

The budget also includes $313,000 for a standalone mental health court outside of the public defender’s office and funding for 16 new jailers for the sheriff’s office.

UnifiED, a local nonprofit organization that supports public education, issued a statement knocking the budget for what it does not have: funding for $24 million in additional needs not included in the Department of Education budget.

“We’re extremely disappointed that the mayor didn’t take leadership in prioritizing funding for our schools,” said Jonas Barriere, UnifiED’s executive director. “UnifiEd consistently hears from community members that Hamilton County is ready to invest in education. Mayor Coppinger’s proposed budget says to us that he didn’t listen to the voters who we know have written and called him in recent weeks to express support for increased funding.”

It would take a 26.7 cent tax hike to pay for the additional $24 million in school needs, according to recent county budget workshop sessions. That would mean $106 more in annual property taxes for a $158,000 home, the median value of owner-occupied housing in Hamilton County.

Coppinger said he spoke to commissioners one-on-one about the possibility of raising taxes to meet those extra educational needs. The overwhelming majority of commissioners told him they could not support it because the public believes the county government and school system wasted money, he said.

Commissioner Joe Graham asked the commission to consider delaying its budget vote until the state informs the county of its new certified tax rate in light of the county’s recent property reappraisal. The new rate, by law, must be revenue neutral; local governments can’t rake in more tax dollars just because property values go up after a reappraisal.

The state is expected to certify the new rate in August.

However, the county commission has the option to adjust the property tax rate up or down after it officially adopts the new certified rate.

If the county’s overall reappraised value picture is high enough, the state’s new rate would need to be lower to keep the total revenue level the same. That being the case, resetting to the existing rate of $2.7652 per $100 of assessed value would result in more revenue, Graham said.

Commissioners speculated North Chattanooga and hot properties in East Brainerd and Ooltewah would take the biggest tax burden hit under such a move.

Graham repeatedly said he only wanted the conversation, but did not voice support or opposition to resetting the tax rate if the state should lower the certified rate.

Coppinger said he had discussed that possibility in his individual conversations with commissioners as well, but it generated little appeal. It still amounts to an increase, he said.

Commission Vice Chairman Greg Beck said he wasn’t afraid of taking the heat for supporting a tax increase.

“It [the new certified tax rate] will be cost-neutral, but it will also be action-neutral if we don’t find some money,” Beck said. “We won’t do anything, we won’t be able to do anything.”

Commissioners Randy Fairbanks and Sabrena Smedley said they could not support an increase.

UnifiED said it has confirmed at least 1,000 people have contacted the mayor and the county commission in support of additional educational spending. It now is calling on commissioners to work with Coppinger to revise and adopt a budget that “prioritizes education spending.”

After the meeting, Coppinger said he applauded the grassroots community engagement championed by UnifiEd and other education advocates.

“It’s important to get that feedback from the community and to eliminate misconception that government is wasteful of tax dollars,” he said.

County Budget Link

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