June 4th, 2011

Defend. Don’t Defund.

We live in a city and county that values its most vulnerable, so it may be a surprise to some that our local governments may refuse to fund essential mental health service agencies. A local news website, the Nooga.com, broke the story that several mental health care agencies were left out of the City of Chattanooga’s 2011 fiscal budget.

The article revealed that the City denied funding for several mental health agencies. These agencies service individuals that are typically uninsured and marginalized by providing a host of services including suicide prevention, abused women and children’s shelters, rape crisis shelters and psychiatric rehabilitation services. The agencies directly affected by these budget cuts includes the AIM Center, the Fortwood Center, the Johnson Center, and the Chambliss Children’s Home.

Budget cuts don’t just hurt agencies; they hurt people. And in this case, its our most vulnerable population: our poor folk, our uninsured and our abused women and children. Caught in the midst of a political tug-of-war between the City and the County, our area’s most vulnerable stand lose the vital public services that they need.

So, why would anyone cut these services?
Just what kind of political game is going on here?

To sum it up: our mental health services have become the latest victim in the now-expired Sales Tax Agreement between the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

So, what does a sales tax agreement have to do with mental health services?

Well, many service agencies used to receive funding under a sales tax agreement made between the local city governments and the county government back in the late 1960s. According to the agreement, a portion of the sales tax collected in the cities would go to the county. Under normal conditions, the local sales tax collected in Chattanooga would stay in Chattanooga, but the thinking back then was that if all the cities pitched in just a little of their sales tax, then we could all do some really great things.

And for years, the sales tax sharing worked. Shared funds paid for the Public Library, the Health Department, the Regional Planning Agency, and many other service agencies. But as Chattanooga gained more population through the decades, the fairness of the sales tax agreement came into question. City residents, who pay both City and County property taxes along with City sales tax, started paying an unfairly large share of funding for these agencies. When it came time for the agreement to be renewed, the City decided to let the agreement expire, citing a long-standing policy of double-taxation on City residents.

Now that the agreement ended, the City and the County have been debating over who should pay for which services. The City is picking up the tab on the Regional Planning Agency, some of the libraries, and other services. The County, due to State law, will be funding the Health Department, along with some of the indigent care at Erlanger and other county-wide services.

You would think, though, that our local governments would be eager to fund the essential public services in danger of losing funding. You’d think that the City and County would be trying for bragging rights to see who could provide the best services to its residents. Unfortunately, the truth is that our public services are being used in a game of political hot potato.

To its credit, the City has decided to restore some funding to the mental health agencies, Despite an already strained budget, City officials found room to partially cover some of the service agencies affected, but the burden of funding these essential services should not rest with the City alone. Remember, these mental health agencies service people from all over the County. Since the County funds the Health Department, which treats the body, should they not also help fund those agencies which treat the mind?

Hamilton County is not exactly hurting for money either. The County sits atop an $85.7 million dollar reserve fund. To quote the Chattanooga Times Free Press: “Hamilton County has more money in its reserves than all other municipalities in the county combined.”

The County also gives each Commissioner $100,000 every year in discretionary spending for a total of $900,000. And, in large part, Commissioners get to spend that money anyway they choose.

Lastly, the County also got an extra $367,500 dollars through a processing fee that the County Trustee charged to the City of Chattanooga for processing its sales tax revenue.

Here’s the bottom-line: The City decided to pay its share in funding these essential public services, and the County can choose to do the same.

So far, however, the County refuses to listen. When told by the City that the fee collected for distributing sales tax would be enough to cover the cost of funding our essential social services, County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said “I kind of take offense at the city trying to dictate our budget.”

But has Chairman Henry listened to the County? Does he realize that the County values the poor and the vulnerable, the marginalized and the uninsured? Does the County Commission care for those most affected by its decisions?

Actions speak louder than words Mr. Chairman, and with the clock ticking on agency funding, we’re left waiting for an answer.

Contact your County Commissioners!

A call, even a voicemail, is better than an e-mail! Commissioners need to hear YOUR voice and know what YOU think about their plans to defund agencies that provide essential services to our most vulnerable population.

Tell the County Commission that budgets are moral documents that reflect the priorities of our county and that Hamilton County VALUES its vulnerable!

FIND YOUR COUNTY DISTRICT HERE: http://www.hamiltontn.gov/commission/District%20Map.aspx

Please contact your County Commissioner:

Phone Numbers:  http://www.hamiltontn.gov/commission/

District 1 Commissioner
Fred Skillern

District 2 Commissioner

Jim Fields

District 3 Commissioner

Mitch McClure
(423) 290-5498
(423) 209-7200

District 4 Commissioner

Warren Mackey
(423) 209-7200

District 5 Commissioner

Greg Beck

District 6 Commissioner

Joe Graham
(423) 821-6834
(423) 209-7200

District 7 Commissioner

Larry Henry
(423) 894-6269

District 8 Commissioner

Tim Boyd
(423) 987-8072

District 9 Commissioner

Chester Bankston

Phil Acord, CEO of the Children’s Home/Chambliss Shelter, addressed the Chattanooga City Council (watch his address HERE) thanking them for their ongoing efforts to fund agencies like his own which provide invaluable services to Hamilton County’s most vulnerable populations.



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