Skillern Says County Commission "Misunderstood"

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - by Gail Perry

"The County Commission is misunderstood,” Chairman of the Hamilton County Commission, Fred Skillern, told the Chattanooga Kiwanis Club at their weekly meeting Tuesday. The commission has only two employees, the county attorney and auditor. The commissioners make no laws. Their main responsibilities are dealing with the county’s money. They also make decisions about county roads, make appointments due to retirement or death but primarily are in charge of the county budget. “The county mayor does all else, but we get credit for it and also the blame,” he said.

The Hamilton County budget is $665 million with 59 percent of that designated for the schools, he said. Schools can ask the County Commission for additional money which would be derived from taxes. He told the audience that no new county tax has been requested in the past five years, but money is available because it has been managed well. The county is one of two in the state to have AAA bond rating and there is a well-stocked rainy-day fund balance. Hamilton County is in good enough shape to have a reduction in revenue and still meet its obligations, he said.

The speaker noted that the county is in charge of building schools. He said the Hamilton County School system decides what kind of schools will be built and where to put them, but because of the AAA bond rating the county can borrow money at a low rate. And, he said, when a school is built, the advantage of the good bond rating saves enough money to provide two additional classrooms. Currently, Hamilton County has $330 million indebtedness, and $36 million will be paid out this year toward the debt.

Mr. Skillern said as bonds mature, the county is able to keep schools under construction at all times. By building a new school and modernizing one each year, the County Commission is able to keep up with the needs of the county, he said. The Hamilton County system is not growing, having had only 50 new students added last year, but there is a constant shift in the population. “We feel comfortable that we can keep the schools up-to-date,” he said, and keep-up with the shifting population.  

Like the city of Chattanooga and most of the nation, he told the Kiwanis members that Hamilton County gives incentives for tax breaks for getting industries to move to town, which he said helps to save a lot of small businesses. The new large companies that locate here and benefit from these tax breaks, however, want an educated work force, he said. The Hamilton County Commission decided eight years ago that these companies need to help pay for that, and so they do pay taxes which go toward education. Schools benefit by getting revenues from all new business that locate in the county. As an example, he said $3,200,000 is paid each year by Volkswagen for education.

County Commissioners each also have money to spend from a discretionary fund for needs they see in their respective districts. Travel money is available for the commissioners, as well. Mr. Skillern said that in the 30 years he has worked with the county he has never filled out a travel expense form, but instead his has been given to the schools.

When asked if the request for same-sex benefits has affected the Hamilton County government, Mr. Skillern answered that, as of now, no discussion has come before the commission.

He said a vote by the commission would not matter since the county is under the State Consolidated Retirement Plan which is dictated by state law. 


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