Roy Exum: We Are Getting Passed By

Thursday, July 6, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

If Hamilton County could look in its rear-view mirror, everybody could see pretty clearly that Rutherford County – think, Murfreesboro – will soon pass us as the fourth-largest county in Tennessee. Due to the phenomenal growth in the Midstate and a flourishing economy, there are now 43,500 children going to school in Rutherford County compared to 43,000 in Hamilton. 

So maybe that is what brought Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackay to take one last dig at a FY2018 budget that allows a 1.7 percent increase over the 2017 budget and gives our burdened public schools barely enough to give our underpaid teachers a three percent raise. Mackey believes that not having a tax increase in the last 12 years is going to cause Hamilton County to fall behind in a quality of life for those who live here. 

“If you take any household and deprive it of any additional funding for that long, it and the people who live in it will suffer,” he said at the weekly commission meeting. As one who thinks we’ve been penny proud and pound foolish, this for three straight County Commission terms, I’m about ready to send out a scouting party to take some lessons from other folks in government. 

Rutherford County is 624 square miles while Hamilton County, decidedly prettier, is 576 square miles. Meeting at the county seat, there are 21 Rutherford County commissioners elected from as many districts, all equal in population. Several weeks ago Hamilton County, its commissioners voting 8-1, approved a $691.5 million budget. Last week the Rutherford rulers were unanimous on a $563.2 million budget for FY2018. How is there a $128 million difference in the cost of doing business? 

A last-minute add-on in Murfreesboro was when construction of the new Rockvale High School came in with some $11 million in overruns so they took the money from over $100 million in reserves. 

Knox County, on the other hand, unanimously approved a $798 million budget that included a multi-million-dollar behavioral health urgent care center, fully funds the schools and, like Murfreesboro and Hamilton County, included no tax increase. Granted, Knoxville has about 100,000 more people than the Chattanooga area. Knoxville has 11 commissioners. 

Nashville – twice as big as Chattanooga --- presented a $2.209 billion (with a ‘b’) budget, which was a 5.8 percent increase over 2017. Nashville has more county commissioners than any other city in America besides New York City and Chicago. While there have been three attempts to lighten the load of 40, voters have rejected it all three times. 

Davidson County, Rutherford County, and Williamson County (24 commissioners) feel the large numbers assure fairness and make ‘cliques’ almost impossible. But in Hamilton County just five commissioners are a majority and there is a growing belief by some that a number of areas in Hamilton County need better representation. 

Hamilton County was run by the “County Judge” up until 1974 when the first of the nine district commissioners were seated but since then it has gone from a rural setting to an urban one. Hamilton County has changed drastically … there are hardly any farms like there once were – they’ve all been replaced by people. In the north end of the county every school is full. 

Signal Mountain has had huge growth with the new high school but now there is a hard push-back against Signal Mountain starting its own school system. Walden wants a seat at the table and the word is several “neighborhoods” are vetting potential County Commissioners. The Highway 27 corridor is anticipated to be a new growth area – Ooltewah and Collegedale are almost full – and just the opposite is befalling Lookout Valley where there were fewer than 50 in this year’s graduating class at the high school. 

A casual poll revealed most of the Hamilton County commissioners would oppose a larger commission but the idea you would have to expand the nine members of the School Board is not true. The school boards in the counties where large commissions are in place still average between seven and nine. 

One said that Hamilton County actually has 18 when you add the nine City Council members. That is untrue because the two groups are as apart as night and day and decisions are never voted in tandem. 

There have been three attempts at “metro government” or a “home rule” style of county management but all three attempts have fallen flat. One theory is such an arrangement would limit black representation. Everyone agrees it would save the city and county millions but the same “every bodies” don’t vote the same way. 

Personally I would love to see a larger County Commission. I would vote for every seated commissioner right now but what I would give to have twice the brain trust with the courage to constantly get better. 

* * *
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

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