Roy Exum: Why Jim Coppinger Excels

Thursday, April 17, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Jim Coppinger, who as the mayor of Hamilton County has understandably had to grow some thick skin, wants no part of the repulsive billboards now seen around town that ask, “Do you have gonorrhea?”  His Tuesday morning telephone call revealed he is just as disgusted as the rest of us who see them showing a picture of a forlorn African-American male. “You need to know the Hamilton County Health Department has nothing to do with the (public health campaign). They were placed by the state and Hamilton County was never consulted.

“We knew there would be a backlash when the signs went up about three weeks ago,” he said. “We aren’t perfect but I hope we know better than that,” the former fire chief added easily after noting a rash of complaints from citizens who believe there is a better method of combating venereal diseases, much less presenting the grim subject to a civil society.

Lord only knows, the last thing the likeable Coppinger needs right now is more problems. Now running for his second elected term after first being appointed in January of 2011, he has served diligently and admirably following Claude Ramsey as the county’s chief executive officer. Jim was a commissioner when the popular Ramsey was lured away and Coppinger’s reign has been anything but easy.

On the other hand, he faces only light opposition as he seeks a second full term in the current election and there is a reason – he has done a good job. You would hardly know that after two lukewarm editorials the Chattanooga Times Free Press begrudgingly endorsed him after slapping him around for a perceived slight of our marvelous magnet school, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

Unfortunately, neither editorial mentioned that Coppinger has made education his top priority and is perhaps the only county executive in the state who has given schools $100 million in the past three years while not calling for a tax increase. But the millions go just so far. Elementary schools got the bulk of this spring’s available funding and, to paraphrase a popular saying, “Coppinger’s delays are not Coppinger’s denials.”

“Obviously you wish you could be all things to all people but in the real world that never happens,” he said yesterday. “I agree that CSLA needs a new school. We have other schools in need that are waiting, too, but one of the biggest challenges in government is trying to make your available resources work in the best possible way. You can only do so much at a time.”

“Every person wants what’s best for their children. I know I do. I also know education is our future. What happens 20 years from now is in today’s classrooms. I am committed to the best schools possible but we can’t do it all at once,” he said with a voice of reason.

His better sense of direction came later in the conversation. We were talking about economic growth and, in the last four years, 7,016 new jobs have been created in Hamilton County. There has been a $350 million gain in capital investment and 93 percent of new businesses are those with 50 employees or less. “That’s absolutely incredible,” said the mayor. “We have had 80 new companies start up when, sadly, all we hear about are the biggest ones.”

So why – I’m just asking – doesn’t Coppinger tap into the $100 million our county leaders have quietly built into a hefty reserve? “When Volkswagen made the decision to come here, we issued bonds on a $32 million project. When we get it paid off, it will have cost the taxpayers about $40 million total, this with interest and such. But what if we didn’t have to pay the interest on the bonds?

“We have some big economic opportunities right now,” Coppinger said in an earnest way. “If we can use that money wisely, and let’s say we have another $32 million project that will pay off in jobs and taxes and other benefits, we could possibly fund it rather than go with bonds – that would save the taxpayers $8 million right off the bat. We believe that is good government.”

“If we could pull that off three times, we could build a school!”

Jim Coppinger is a realist. He is well aware that Southeast Tennessee is a part of the country where – this is a known fact -- the population wants “less taxes and less services.” Unlike parts of the country like areas in California that pay 55 percent in taxes and demand greater services, Hamilton County is just the opposite.

“Everybody likes services like garbage pickup, fire and police protection, but the county, you must remember, is an extension of the state. We issue permits, license tags, oversee the courts, etc. The city operates on a charter, where for additional taxes they ask for more services than the county provides. I know this because I chose to live inside the city limits,” his lesson was easy to understand.

“We have a strong reserve in the county. While there are some who say we don’t need it to be $100 million, there are some counties in America that are having hard times and, whew, that isn’t going to happen to us. My duty is to oversee our budget and be held accountable for it.

“I am totally up front with our commissioners and our department heads and I sit down with each of them, individually, so they will know exactly what we are doing,” Coppinger explained, perhaps unaware he was painting a stunning portrait of what he has accomplished in the past six years.

Asked what he dreams for Hamilton County in the next four years, Coppinger didn’t hesitate. “Better schools. We want better education. We are going to have economic development. We have more companies looking at us than ever before. We need to be fiscally responsible. We need Erlanger to be strong. We need to be progressive, always moving forward, but our allegiance is to our young.”

Jim Coppinger has done a good job for Hamilton County. He’s served us well. And while sometimes it may seem he can’t produce a rabbit from a magician’s hat, let’s remember this is the guy who budgeted $100 million for our schools in just the last three years. Thank him with your vote. He deserves it.

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