With the early-morning air dipping into the 50s at daybreak yesterday, once again I marveled how quickly fall follows Labor Day. Yet before noon I felt spring was in the air. Oh, the leaves are now clustering on our streets and September’s afternoon sun seems to cast long shadows but when the Hamilton County Commission approved what promises to be an infusion of $325 million, it was the most positive step towards our future that I can remember in the last decade.
Every spring hope blooms anew. It did for Hamilton County yesterday after quite a long drought. I firmly believe it was the right thing to do from every possible view and while “the experts” cite a prison report as reason for the afterthought, any casual observer could see the meager FY2018 budget approved in June was destined for failure. The 8-1 vote was heartening indeed.
I have been an outspoken critic of our lack of foresight and timid leadership on the County Commission. Some may chortle how proud they are we haven’t had a tax increase in the last 10 years but not one will step forward and accept responsibility for $230 million in deferred maintenance for our school buildings.
School buildings are a county responsibility – not the School Board – and since the year 2005 we have shirked our responsibility. Coppinger points to the fact in his eight years as Mayor he has provided $325 million for the schools but with deferred maintenance the same amount, that has clearly not been enough.
Just so you’ll know, I cannot find one commissioner who has served in any of the past three terms who will boast how thrilled they are that not one school is being built in the county today, that they are ‘okay’ that our overcrowded jail is quite literally inhumane, and that there are actual moratoriums against building in areas where we have allowed the lack of sewers to dictate the economy. This is crazy.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger says $100 million will immediately be used to replace or repair 79 school buildings that average 43 years of age. Please, brother. In Huntsville they just opened a $70 million high school and in Auburn they have an equally elaborate facility as the new Auburn High. My gracious, Nashville is experiencing phenomenal growth and has $200 million in new schools now under construction. That we have nothing shows a lack of vision and a serious deficit of a mindset: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
In June I wanted to weep -- after nearly two years of education forums, roundtables, symposiums, promises of resolve and all manner of parading, our County Commission gave our public schools a mere 1.9 percent increase in funding. We haven’t had any tax increase in a decade so we throw a 1.7 increase at county government and all any politician would say is, “The people don’t want a tax increase.” Easy answers are not sound government.
Before Wednesday’s vote Coppinger had carefully cultivated enough votes beforehand to assure the millage-rate proposal would pass. Now the trick is to never allow gutless politicians to put the county in such a tragic position again. Let’s face it. This is what happened. Let’s heed the lesson.
While I enthusiastically applaud yesterday’s Eleventh Hour save, new County Commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks needs to install a committee to have a strategic funding plan for each of the next five years. We should set aside X-dollars for capital funding, corrections, wastewater maintenance, and other predictable future expenses every quarter of every year or else we’ll wind up in the same desperate shape we were in before Wednesday’s meeting.
I am convinced Hamilton County’s unsung heroes are the staff Coppinger has set in place and the financial expertise is amazing. The County Commission should demand and expect strategic planning and then have the backbone to support it.
There will never – ever – be enough money in government to provide a Camelot but there is a way to assure a voyage on the Titanic doesn’t happen to us again.
I believe yesterday’s decision was a Godsend. I also believe God doesn’t want His people to get in this position again. We can be better. We must.