Commissioners Joe Graham and Marty Haynes beat back an effort by fellow commissioners to “hijack” $200,000 in public funds and send it to an area nonprofit.
The commissioners wanted to return money from their discretionary spending accounts to Hamilton County’s reserve fund from which it originated. The 5-4 vote Wednesday was the latest flash point in a summerlong debate around the use of “rainy day” money for commissioners’ own pet projects.
With the funds up for consideration, Warren Mackey moved to amend a resolution so the money would go to his district’s Orange Grove Center, a local nonprofit that assists disabled people.
Mackey said the 4th District is one of the most poverty-stricken in Hamilton County and does not receive the attention others do.
“I’m probably the most adamant supporter of discretionary spending,” he said. “If I didn’t have discretionary money, there wouldn’t be much coming to District 4.”
He was joined by Commissioners Sabrena Smedley, Randy Fairbanks and Chester Bankston.
But other commissioners sided against the effort. Graham warned that it would set a “horrible precedent.” For instance, anytime discretionary money was up for consideration, a majority of commissioners could appropriate it to almost any project they wished.
Graham said if other commissioners successfully redirected the money, he would join Mayor Jim Coppinger next year in eliminating the spending practice.
“I think it clouds the issue to redirect those funds,” Commissioner Tim Boyd said.
In the same meeting, commissioners voted to spend $40,800 in discretionary money.
Hamilton is the only Tennessee county where commissioners each have $100,000 annually to give to the nonprofits, municipalities and athletic facilities of their choosing.
Coppinger initially removed the spending accounts in this year’s budget proposal. Six commissioners decided to transfer $900,000 from the county’s reserve fund to restore the accounts and eventually overrode Coppinger’s veto on the matter. Graham, Haynes and Commissioner Greg Beck sided with the mayor then but found themselves on the losing side.
Coppinger sought advice from the Tennessee comptroller’s office earlier this summer after he learned commissioners planned to use reserve funds to restore the spending accounts.
Nashville accountants reviewed past discretionary expenses and sent to the county a 1992 opinion from the Tennessee attorney general stating that general fund money cannot be used for education or highway projects. Tennessee counties levy separate taxes for those purposes.
“You can’t tax people for one purpose and spend it for another,” said Joe Kimery, assistant director in the comptroller’s local government audit division.
Kimery said the attorney general’s opinion has not been challenged by case law and would still apply.