Mayor Andy Berke's first budget doesn't raise property taxes and aims to accomplish goals he laid out for Chattanooga during his yearlong campaign for mayor.
Andrew Kean, chief operating officer, presented the financial plan to City Council members this afternoon, roughly 90 days after he was granted an extension from the group. The mayor and his staff are adopting a new methodfor the plan called Budgeting for Outcomes, which attempts to align the city's available resources with community priorities.
To review the proposed budget, click here.
Since becoming mayor, Berke has sought to align his actions with four key issues—public safety, economic and community development, youth and family development, and openness and transparency in government. In his budget, the mayor describes the four goals as "having safer streets; strong neighborhoods and growing communities; smarter students and stronger families; and an innovative, effective and efficient government."
According to a presentation prepared by Berke's staff, the city anticipates more than $212.5 million in revenue this year. Last year, council members approved a $209 million budget to fund operations in the city.
In an interview with Nooga.com, Berke said projected tax revenues from the Hamilton County assessor of property led the city to anticipate having to raise the property tax rate by 0.5 percent this year.
Instead, he and his staff chose to keep the current rate and continue to meet obligations.
Berke said the result is a lower overall tax burden.
"That means the average ratepayer for property tax ends up paying about 1.7 percent less," he said.
The budget does include a 9.8 percent increase in the city's sewer usage fee. The mayor's office said the increase was in line with projections tied to the city's $250 million federal consent decree, which was entered into by the city last year and will cover a massive fix to Chattanooga's outdated sewer system over 16 years.
The mayor's budget also proposes a 1.5 percent across-the-board raise for city employees. That includes the entirety of Chattanooga's sworn personnel—who were at the center of a heated debate last year after Mayor Ron Littlefield offered raises to city workers but excluded most officers, along with employees who had maxed out on total pay.
With the goal of enhancing public safety and reducing crime, Berke is requesting approval for the hire of 40 additional police officers—in addition to the 20 new officers being sworn into the Chattanooga Police Department in September. The mayor has also written into his budget funding for the hiring of a full-time federal prosecutor by the city, who would push for stricter sentences for violent offenders who were arrested in Chattanooga.
Berke said he and U.S. Attorney Bill Killian had discussed creating the special prosecutor position, which will assist in implementation of the High Point Initiative—a national model for violent crime reduction in cities.
He added that the tactic was not being used in many other cities outside Chattanooga, to his knowledge.
"Federal sentencing guidelines are much stricter than state ones," Berke said. "Our worst offenders will go to jail longer if they're in federal court, so it makes a difference with the High Point Initiative. If you're going to make an example of people, the only way to do that is to impose the strictest sentences for violent offenders."
In addition, the mayor is proposing for taxpayers to provide funds for creation of an "intense partnership" with David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Control and Prevention at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Kennedy and his staff would advise the city in its implementation of the High Point Initiative.
Items in Berke's budget pertaining to economic and community development include the creation of an affordable housing pilot program, which would have the goal of transforming vacant and unproductive lots into locations for affordable residencies. The mayor is also proposing that the city purchase the 35-acre site of the former Harriet Tubman Development in East Chattanooga to potentially become a large-scale industrial site.
"We have to bring jobs all across our city," Berke said. "The former Harriet Tubman site is a great example of how we can accomplish that. Through acquiring that site and preparing it for development, we can showcase it in a way that provides opportunities for an area that doesn't have as much of those as other areas in the city."
He added that the Harriet Tubman site provided opportunity for a city "running low" on land for larger-scale projects.
Berke's budget also proposes funding for a city internship geared at providing students with opportunities in government, business and higher education, with the hope of retaining young talent in Chattanooga. There is also funding marked for the increased implementation of Lexia literacy software in the city's recreation centers.
It also marks at least $3.3 million for local agency appropriations. No specific details regarding the amount of funds marked for agencies in the city was provided by Berke's office before the budget was presented.
The mayor is also suggesting the city make improvements to its 311 call system and purchase new software that would allow citizens to pay their property taxes online in a more user-friendly format.
"We must do everything possible to ensure people have a positive experience with our city," Berke said.
Reaction to budget proposal
Most of the council members were receptive to the budget. Councilwoman Carol Berz and Councilman Russell Gilbert both praised the mayor's office for its efforts in pulling the budget together.
"I wanted to interrupt you several times to give you a round of applause … [Your points] hit head-on in terms of the direction this city needs to go, and I applaud you for it," Councilman Moses Freeman said.
Council Chair Yusuf Hakeem said Berke was doing a good job of listening to the concerns of Chattanooga citizens.
"The outline as it has been presented represents the concerns, the interests and the desires of the citizens of Chattanooga … It's going to turn this city totally around," Hakeem said.
Councilman Larry Grohn said he liked the idea of a federal prosecutor but wanted to hear more about Berke's proposed education budget along the lines of a technical school. He also said taking care of the problems Berke's budget addresses will put Chattanooga in a good position to grow.
"What we heard in the campaign and what we heard in the first 100 days were a lot of generalities. Well, now we have details," Grohn said.
Berz said the council will deliberate on the budget over the next two weeks before coming to a decision.
Updated @ 3:03 p.m. on 7/31/13 for clarity.
Updated @ 3:49 p.m. on 7/31/13 to add more information as it became available.