There was almost a festive air at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday. Jim Coppinger, easily one of the best county executives we’ve had since the Cherokee once roamed, announced yesterday he would be seeking re-election and people were happy. I’m talking about “the people who count,” the county employees who serve the people just as hard but without the limelight, because Coppinger is indeed special and most certainly deserves our trust and our votes.
Back in the summer, when his efforts to increase taxes were met with cold shoulders by the county commissioners after a 10-year drought, I was honestly worried that Jim might step aside. The frustration and continued lack of money for the county infrastructure was a huge burden, and when a budget so thin it squeaked when you turned a page yielded an insulting 1.9 percent increase for education, it gnawed heavily on the mayor. To no one’s surprise, he solved the crisis.
“Jim is a very good mayor,” said County Clerk Bill Knowles. “When he first served on the County Commission I told him he could be special. I saw it in him,” Knowles added after 41 glorious years of service himself. “I wasn’t wrong, either. Jim has done a wonderful job serving our county.”
After the FY2018 budget was approved with no way to address an outrageous $325 million in deferred maintenance at our public schools, Coppinger’s finest moment was when he was able to engineer a windfall in the millage rate into a bond issue that has been a virtual Godsend for the county and its public schools.
Yes, it was a tax hike but everyone supported it. Coppinger, working closely with a team that included ever-steady Chief of Staff Mike Compton and the county financial geniuses – Al Kiser and Lee Brouner – Jim not only pulled the rabbit from the hat but made sure to include the commissioners, the school board and city leaders into a stunning courthouse-steps celebration. I know the “me-to-we” strategy greatly impressed new school superintendent Bryan Johnson and thrilled an understandably worried Department of Education crowd.
“Education must be our priority. Hamilton County pours more ‘local money’ into education per child that almost any other county in the state. For a while we were No. 2 only to Williamson County but I can easily say we are in the Top Five per student. We are tremendously proud of that,” the mayor said. “That must never change. Our children are our future. Nothing is more important than investing in people.
“Since 2011, almost 15,000 more jobs have been created in the county and we’ve added 22,000 new residents because of that. We’ve got right at $250 million in school construction and we are told there will be 10,000 new homes built within the next five years. If government can be both effective and efficient, Hamilton County will continue to flourish.”
“I have been criticized, in a way, by people who say I want to build a new jail,” Coppinger said. “I’d rather build new schools instead but we have reached the point where our County Jail costs $87,000 each day. Sheriff Hammond has great ideas for us to reduce those costs, how we can handle and treat those who are incarcerated. We are moving as quickly as we can towards helping our mentally-challenged in what will not only save money, but allow dignity and proper medical treatment of people who we must help.”
I can’t imagine who would run against Coppinger later this year after this, his first full term. You’ll remember he stepped into the breach when Governor Bill Haslam talked County Mayor Claude Ramsey into joining him in Nashville. It's not just courtesy that causes Jim to continue to credit Claude with good decisions and too few realize how good it has been for the county to have such a string of leadership.
“I’ve served under four county executives, or mayors,” Clerk Knowles said Wednesday, “and every one of them has been a joy. One reason the courthouse runs so well is because everybody really likes each other,” he laughed.
In a curious way, those who celebrated the millage windfall know that it is one-of-a-kind. What must happen moving ahead is the county commissioners must have the resolve to apply government properly, with moderate tax increases. Public service is never going to get cheaper and, while you’ll hear no politician dare mention taxes in this election cycle, there has to be a realistic view on the needs of the future.
“One of the most colorful politicians back in the 1960s-1970s was Frank Newell. He was a Squire, served on the County Commission and was later sheriff,” Knowles remembered warmly. “Everybody knew Frank was firmly against raising taxes and one day he went to the News-Free Press to ask for Roy McDonald’s endorsement.
“Mr. Roy was a very good businessman and he also liked Frank. So Mr. Roy asked, ‘But what are you going to do? You’ll run out of money. You have to have money to operate, Frank.’
“Well,” said Newell, “the day that happens, I’ll just resign.”
Coppinger laughed at the tale and quipped. “That’s a true politician!”