District 8 Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd held a town hall meeting at the East Ridge Community Center Thursday evening. Topics covered included the expansion of Camp Jordan and what he termed “wasteful spending” by Hamilton County government.
Boyd, who is in his last year of his second, four-year term on the county commission, gave a detailed accounting of why he, the Chairman of the Finance Committee, was the only dissenting vote as the county recently adopted a budget for fiscal year 2018-19. The biggest reason he didn’t vote for the budget was what he termed “wasteful spending” by non-profit organizations funded by the county, unreasonable salaries in various county departments and non-profit organizations and the fact that the new budget does not include any new capital projects.
“As your commissioner, I’m the last person between you and the mayor and how your tax dollars are spent,” Boyd told the dozen or so people who took time to meet with their county representative. “”I’ve identified wasteful spending and ineffective uses of taxpayer dollars.”
Boyd was critical of about a dozen non-profit organizations that receive $14.5 million in funding from the county and how that money is used within the specific organization. Among those organizations were the Urban League, the African American Museum, Chattanooga’s Enterprise Center, the Humane Educational Society, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Enterprise South Nature Park, Read 20 and the Chamber of Commerce.
According to Boyd, the Urban League is getting $50,000 in the newly-adopted budget. He said the organization gives quarterly reports to the county about its projects. Boyd said last quarter that the Urban League had no projects.
The African American Museum’s $75,000 in county funding, that is paid out of the General Fund, could be financed through the county’s hotel/motel tax. He said the museum is related to tourist industry and that “alien dollars,” tourists traveling and staying in county motels, could help foot the bill for the museum, keeping the $75,000 in the county General Fund.
The Enterprise Center, Boyd said, is a City of Chattanooga initiative. “Let them (Chattanooga) pay for it,” he said. “This is not an East Ridge problem or a county problem.”
Boyd asked if anyone in the audience had ever heard of Read 20. Nobody had. He explained it was a pilot program started by former Mayor Claude Ramsey in 2007. It’s objective was to provide books to inner-city parents to read to their preschool-aged children to give them a jump on literacy. According to Boyd the organization of three employees receives $311,000 in the current budget. It’s director is drawing a salary of $111,000.
Boyd said the county’s literacy test scores are “horrible,” and characterized the Read 20 program as “ineffective.”
He turned his attention to the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the $8.2 million it receives from the county via the hotel/motel tax. Boyd decried the lack of transparency and accountability of the CVB. Boyd claimed that CVB President Bob Doak told him that 90 percent of the people who visit the Chattanooga area come from within 150 miles. Yet, the CVB travels all over the United States, including visiting 26 cities not in the Southeastern U.S.
“It’s time we reconsider where the money is going,” Boyd said of the CVB.
He proposed slashing $2.2 million from CVB funding and diverting it to the county department of education to pay to fix crumbling school buildings.
Boyd turned his attention to Camp Jordan and the concept of building a regional sports complex in a park that’s prone to flooding. He said the developers of Jordan Crossing approached him with an “aerial plat” of the proposed sports complex that included new artificial turf fields and other amenities. He said it was a “great plan.” The issue is how to fund it and how to maintain it.
Boyd said he had questions about the initial idea of funding the as of yet unknown cost (some say as high as $20 million) with earmarked property tax dollars from a build-out of Jordan Crossing. What happens if the revenue from the property tax doesn’t cover the debt service?
“Let’s wait until the development kicks off to see if we get the property tax dollars to cover the debt service,” Boyd said.
He said another option would be General Obligation Bonds. East Ridge borrows money and pays it back over 20 or 30 years. Boyd said that East Ridge could finance the Camp Jordan expansion with hotel/motel tax dollars. The city could then use future property tax revenues from Jordan Crossing to build sidewalks, acquire land for pocket parks and improve the “quality of life” of its residents.
Frances Pope, who ran for mayor in 2014, told Boyd that East Ridge collected $338,000 during the current fiscal year in hotel/motel taxes and that it is already earmarked to service the city’s debt.
“We are already up to our eyeballs in bonds,” Pope said. “As a citizen of East Ridge, I don’t want a soccer complex in Camp Jordan that costs $15 million.”
When Boyd called for a show of hands in the room of people who supported the complex, developers Ethan Wood and John Healy raised their hands along with one or two other people.
Healy then embarked on an elaborate, numbers-filled tutorial on how East Ridge is benefiting from increased tax revenues garnered from the newly-constructed Bass Pro Shops and the Border Region Act in general. Healy claimed that the Bass Pro Shop and the as yet unrealized Jordan Crossing development is the largest contributor to property tax revenue in East Ridge. He urged the City of East Ridge to borrow heavily and invest in the city. The money will be reimbursed by the state through the Border Region Act.
Pope maintained that Exit 1 LLC and Jordan Crossing developers are the people pushing the expansion of Camp Jordan to benefit their business plan.
“It’s their (the developers) vision,” Pope said.
Former City Councilman Jim Bethune asked Boyd why he “flipped” from not supporting the project to advocating for the sports complex?
“I’m for improvements in East Ridge,” Boyd said. “If the business model doesn’t support it, it will be dead.”