County Budget Bare For CARTA, Which Has Put Out A Plea For City, County Help

  • Tuesday, May 21, 2024
  • Hannah Campbell

County Mayor Weston Wamp’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2025, which is more than $9 million more than last year’s, includes no funds for CARTA. Officials of the transit agency recently said they need more help from the city and county or face "going out of business."

CARTA is not recommended for any money from the county this year, though the organization had received $105,200 several years in a row.

“It did not appear that what was being requested was being carried out,” County Mayor Wamp said. “Let’s be intentional about the way we fund CARTA.”

The mayor said he’d rather expand Care-A-Van services into the unincorporated county and help CARTA work with Hamilton County Schools to provide transportation, which would expand school choice for families.

“We’re open to a partnership with them going forward,” Mayor Wamp said.

Although many worthy items went unfunded in the general budget, priorities would still be funded with bond issuance and other means, he said.

“Nobody got close to everything that they asked for,” Mayor Wamp said.

The mayor presented his budget to county commissioners and heads of county departments on Monday. County Commissioners will vote to approve the budget June 26.

The total general budget, without the Hamilton County Schools portion, is $328,774,000.

“The school board normally at this time has passed a budget,” Mayor Wamp said.

Huge increases in employee health care drive this budget, Mayor Wamp said: a jump of $4.2 million toward medical insurance and $2.4 million toward annual raises, which is a two percent cost-of-living raise with a $1,000 minimum. Employee benefits and salaries make up 56 percent of total budget expenditures.

“We started there and it really did shape the budget,” Mayor Wamp said.

The budget also puts more money toward the opioid crisis and volunteer fire departments, while cutting back on allotments to "supported agencies” whose missions do not directly align with county services.

Though the region seems to be booming, the property tax base has grown by just 1.4 percent this year, even less than the county’s modest projection of 2.5 percent. Property tax makes up 60 percent of the county’s budget revenues.

Chief Financial Officer Lee Brouner said a state mechanism which equalizes property tax growth has eaten up $1.7 million in payments in lieu of taxes. Property taxes collected were 23.5 percent less than the county had projected.

“We feel that growth is good,” Mr. Brouner said, countering equalization. It was discussed that the state may soon consider implementing a six-year reassessment cycle instead of the current four-year cycle, but Mr. Brouner said the county assessor of property will push for assessments every two years, or even every year.

“We will definitely be opposed to going six years,” Mr. Brouner said.

Relying on the latest comprehensive growth study by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, Mayor Wamp has set aside $150,000 for volunteer fire departments. Large departments get $30,000 and small ones get $20,000.

“Growth has made it very hard for volunteer fire to keep up,” Mayor Wamp said.

Area nonprofit organizations labeled “supported agencies” in the budget, such as the Humane Educational Society, Chamber of Commerce and CARTA, will get $546,000 less than last year’s $5 million. Mayor Wamp said he saved county funds for organizations whose mission is adjacent to or connected to the operations of county government. He said he also kept funding from organizations that have “funding success” through their own fundraising or grant writing.

“We felt like there was less of a need for county funding,” he said.

The Humane Society got a $77,000 increase over last year, or 10 percent. That means a $200,000 increase over the last two years.

“We feel like every single increase is directly connected to the things that we do at county government,” Mayor Wamp said.

After hotel-motel taxes fell short of $1.7-million projected growth, the Chattanooga Tourism Company will receive a flat $10.4 million, the same as in 2023 and 2024, from the hotel-motel fund. Mayor Wamp said he will hold $1 million for the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center near the Aquarium, Bessie Smith Cultural Center and other downtown development.

The hotel-motel fund, which was $12,274,000 last year, grew by just $1 million, Mayor Wamp said.

“We’ve been more modest in our calculations looking ahead,” he said.

Mayor Wamp said the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga did not request funding this year.

Mayor Wamp and Chief Operating Officer David Roddy introduced a new quick-response team, funded by opioid abatement, which will supplement EMS dispatches to evaluate and coach friends and family on the scene of a drug overdose. If the overdose is not life-threatening, the new team will take over, relieving EMS to respond to other emergencies.

“That is the main focus of the opioid dollars out into the future,” Mayor Wamp said.

The program’s new voluntary three-step protocol would shepherd those who overdose through a detox center, rehabilitation and on to addiction recovery.

***

Employee medical benefits total $35,214,000, up from $31,811,921 last year.

Salaries total $121,823,000, up from $119,785,219 last year.

Public Works will receive $2.5 million more than last year, totaling $46,659,000.

Health Department will receive $1 million more than last year.

Public Safety receives $3,610,000 more than last year, with $2.4 million for opioid-related projects

Sheriff’s Office receives $3.5 million more than last year, totaling $68,293,000. The increase covers more school resource deputies and inmate medical costs.

County debt service principal and interest this year is $43 million. Mayor Wamp said the county is due to pay it below $5 million by 2051, unless the new Lookouts stadium project logs a shortfall, he added.

Mayor Wamp said the General Fund balance “still looks good” after the county purchased the Cigna building for $8 million in 2022 and the Gateway building for $10 million in 2023, both to be used for education, and set aside $5.8 million to the new County Roads Improvement Fund earlier this month.



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