As regional members of the Tennessee General Assembly prepare for the upcoming legislative session, elected officials from Hamilton County took an annual opportunity to make their legislative priorities known Thursday.
Over breakfast at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Mayor Jim Coppinger, Sheriff Jim Hammond, county commissioners and other elected officials briefed House representatives and one state senator on items they would like to see considered. Members of the delegation on hand were Sen. Bo Watson and Reps. Mike Carter, Vince Dean, JoAnne Favors, Richard Floyd and Gerald McCormick.
At the top of Coppinger's list was a request to amend a state law that would allow the county to cremate the remains of unclaimed indigents. The mayor said that his staff had done their best to be "sensitive" to the issue but had been forced to think logically in the face of dwindling plots available at the county's Cofer Cemetery.
"We have 73 grave sites that are left there right now, and we've already had to bury 80 people there this year," Coppinger said. "If you do the math, we're going to be running out of sites soon."
Cofer Cemetery, located on a hillside along Jenkins Road, has been in use since 1933 as the county's location for the burial of unclaimed remains. Coppinger said that any remains that were cremated would likely be buried at the cemetery and still be available for claiming.
"It kind of comes off as cold-sounding, but it's not," he said. "Logistically, we just don't have any room."
Coppinger also asked members of the delegation to ensure the county would not have to comply with any unfunded mandates in the coming year and requested in addition that members work to maintain the level of grant funding that the county has already become dependent on.
Outlining his priorities for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, Hammond asked members of the Legislature to place special attention on how transportation of inmates with mental health issues was draining department resources. Hammond said the issue was affecting more than 20 percent of inmates.
"Jails have become mental health hospitals, to tell you the truth," Hammond said.
Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith made no specific requests for legislators but restated his opposition to a potential bill to form a voucher program for public schools.
"We know it will take dollars away from public schools," he said.
Following the meeting, Watson said he wasn't surprised by any of the concerns brought forward by local officials. Watson said the lack of curveballs was in part the result of good communication between officials at the state and local levels.
"We have a really good relationship with our local government," Watson said. "Over the past month or two, several of these folks have talked with us or members of the delegation about these items."