Roy Exum: The County’s Finest Moment

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In late June, when the Hamilton County commissioners sneered at a tax increase for the tenth year in a row, I felt it was a huge mistake. Here we are, easily one of the most vibrant communities in the state, and we have grown stale. The FY2018 budget that was approved increased our total operations by 1.7 percent and our public education by 1.9 percent – standards that make our future appear dull.

But since that disheartening decision, County Mayor Jim Coppinger has been quietly working on an alternate plan, weaving different groups with challenging egos into a way that could infuse our 576 square miles of heaven with about $225 million almost immediately.

He will appear before the County Commission this morning and it will be the most exciting moment in the eight years he has guided us.

A recent property reappraisal dropped the county’s millage rate to $2.4976, the state decided last month. By keeping the rate at $2.7652 where it has been for the past four years, it is expected the County Commission will approve a resolution to do exactly that. Instead of the money under the new millage rate going to the taxpayers, approximately $25.5 million in each of the next four years will go to our county government that needs it desperately.

A bond issue will yield about $180 million. At the same time, the county will loan the Waste Water Treatment Authority roughly $45 million to build a new treatment facility in the booming northwest corner – think Collegedale and Ooltewah. The WWTA will pay the money back as it obtains more users.

In the past decade, our public education efforts have floundered but Dr. Bryan Johnson, recently hired as the new superintendent after the previous three departed prematurely, has already shown such promise that a full $100 million of the bond issue will go to our most important responsibility – educating a work force that will make the Chattanooga area flourish more than anything comparable and propel us towards a bright future.

The education money will be used for badly needed maintenance of 79 public schools, will enable construction to begin on new schools and provide infrastructure needs that – quite frankly – have been ignored. Another large share will be for economic development.

The most aching need is the overcrowded and antiquated county jail and this morning Coppinger – with the commission’s approval -- will relinquish control by the mayor’s office over the workhouse to Sheriff Jim Hammond, a move that should have been made long ago. With the sheriff over both correction facilities, he can better utilize both and Hammond will oversee additions at the workhouse to house a growing number of prisoners.

The sheriff is working on ways to get the mentally dysfunctional in a new setting where they will get medicines and counselling rather than be “dumped” in the county jail. “We are looking at ways to reduce the jail population and we are also dedicated to treating these human being properly,” he said moments before it was announced the sheriff’s department would receive between $30 million and $40 million to reach its objectives.

Since the 2010 census, it is believed Hamilton County’s population has grown by 17,000 people. Coppinger said that by the year 2021 it is also estimated there will be 10,000 more homes built in the county. “We are hot right now and we must act right now,” he said. “This is the right thing for us to do.”

The WWTA facility is overdue and to understand its value is to look into a crystal ball – the Ooltewah-Collegedale area is thriving but there is a saturation point. I’m told to expect the next growth area will be the Highway 27 area – Red Bank, Soddy Daisy and Sale Creek. Don’t worry about a new bridge connecting Highway 27 to Highway 58 across the Tennessee River – the demand is already apparent and, with the growth pattern imminent, it is a transportation must. Rhea County and Hamilton County are working on a sewer plan.

At Tuesday’s announcement on the courthouse steps, the biggest prize of all was how Coppinger has included so many from different walks into this effort. He must have had 50 people standing behind him who grinned like they were co-signers of the Constitution.

Some say this is a tax increase, others argue it is not, but what it really matters is the effort to move Hamilton County forward. This is Jim Coppinger’s finest moment and it is a master stroke that shows Hamilton County is moving forward. The County Commission will support this and any commissioner who balks – I have to believe – will do so at the risk of their political peril.

I can’t remember anything in Hamilton County history as wonderful as finding $100 million for our school children. They are indeed our future.

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