Sunday, December 21, 2014 · 4:31 p.m.
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The Hamilton County Commission. (Photo: Staff)

The Hamilton County Commission began the year debating whether to return more than $1.2 million in PILOT funds earmarked for Hamilton County schools, an action they eventually approved

The debate on PILOT funds would not be the last item of contention between commissioners and the school system, which became a theme in 2012— along with a handful of other unique happenings.

In March, protestors with Occupy Chattanooga were swiftly removed from the courthouse lawn, where they had been encamped for months. County Commission Chairman Larry Henry called the action a "relocation" rather than an eviction—out of a need to ready the grounds for the courthouse centennial. 

Occupy Chattanooga condemned the action and set up their camp on the sidewalk next to the courthouse. By the end of the month, the group left

Almost as soon as the Occupy protestors had withdrawn, commissioners were met with a new form of protest—for allowing prayers to be offered "in Jesus' name" before holding their public meetings. A pair of citizens sued the group, claiming that their First Amendment rights were being violated.

The dispute over prayer played out as proponents of both sides repeatedly took opportunities to address the group, while prayers continued to be offered in the face of litigation. In July, the commission quietly adopted a new prayer policy, setting up formal guidelines for how future invocations would be scheduled and opening the opportunity to local religious leaders on a first-come-first-served basis.

Briefings were filed, objections continued and, finally, after being moved to federal court, a judge denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that would have halted the prayers at meetings indefinitely. Even as appeals remained pending, the commission observed a moment of silence under their new policy—the action the plaintiffs in the case said would have been the best alternative to prayer.

Commissioners continued to address their more routine business during the prayer dispute. 

Several in the group took issue in June with a proposed three-way land swap between the Department of Education, the city of Chattanooga and the Housing Authority. As the primary funding body for the school system, commissioners decided to halt progress on an earlier approved plan for moving forward on a new East Brainerd Elementary. 

Appraisal figures for the swap troubled some commissioners, and in August, the group voted to deny the approval of an architect for the new school—further increasing tension between the county and the school system. Finally, in September, the commission voted unanimously to approve an interlocal agreement between the county and the school system regarding the management of surplus funds, giving school construction the green light.

The first drafts of the architectural design for the new East Brainerd Elementary were also approved by commissioners months later, in December.

In June, the commission approved a proposed $642 million budget, with $384 million designated for Hamilton County schools. The budget figure was $16 million higher than last year's and contained no tax increases, according to Mayor Jim Coppinger.

The group denied a request by Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond to grant an additional $275,000 to his office, citing increasing costs for items such as gasoline and the additional costs of managing inmates with mental health conditions.

The commission also approved a tax incentive plan for downtown developers and made changes to the Hamilton County employee handbook regarding the accumulation and payment of accrued leave. The group also heard the concerns of a group of parents of disabled students, who had worries over the management and administration of special education programs by the school system. 

Finally, county commissioners in 2012 took the first steps toward bringing whiskey distillation back to Hamilton County. After dozens of citizens showed up in support of Chattanooga Whiskey Company, the group sent a letter with seven signatures to local members of the Tennessee delegation to request that a provision of a state law be changed.

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