In his first State of the City address, Mayor Andy Berke highlighted first-year achievements and announced new initiatives that he says will break down barriers for residents to succeed or fail on their own merits.
He wove anecdotal stories from residents through often-lofty rhetoric about the work of City Hall. In his telling, the daily minutiae of city government can help people write their own stories into a broader narrative about Chattanooga.
“We are a city of such great hope and such great promise. We have made progress when we have stood together, when we have been united in our efforts to advance our city,” Berke said, according to his prepared remarks. “When we work and act as one, there are no limits to our ability to achieve our collective hopes and dreams, to write a story that all of our children will be proud of.”
The mayor announced four new initiatives in the 30-minute speech to a standing-room-only crowd at The Chattanoogan Hotel Monday evening:
He wants to provide financial incentives to small businesses that create five or more jobs at a living wage. The grants would be available to businesses with 100 or fewer employees.
He set a goal of ending chronic homelessness of veterans by December 2016. Numbers on this population vary. But there are about 150 homeless veterans on Chattanooga’s streets, according to an estimate from the Department of Economic and Community Development. Of those, 20 percent are chronically homeless.
He wants to start a baby college modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone. Funding for the program will likely be included in his fiscal 2015 budget. And it would provide education and resources to expectant parents.
He plans to establish an innovation district through the revamped Enterprise Center. The district would pull together technology, entrepreneurs, industries and education into one location.
Council Chair Chip Henderson said the mayor’s goals and visions are beginning to overlap with that of the City Council. Henderson pointed to the plan for small business incentives, saying that although public safety is the skeleton of city government, “Small business is the lifeblood of a city.”
“That’s where a city thrives is in small business,” he said.
Henderson, who became council chair last week, has not seen numbers attached to new programs, but expects more details once he and his eight colleagues start going over the city’s budget in the next few weeks.
“One of the things I’ve stressed to the administration is no tax increase,” he said. “As we get into that financial dialogue, we’ll look at what kind of funding it takes, where we’re taking it from, and making sure that we still address all the things we need to address.”
Councilman Chris Anderson said Berke showed he was a mayor for a “real 21st-century city,” which he believes will be a progressive model for the rest of the country.
“I loved every single initiative that he came out with,” Anderson said. “It’s that kind of forward-thinking progressivism that this city has needed for a long time. And I’m willing to fight on City Council for every single one.”
Berke’s speech also revisited a list of highlights from his first 12 months in office:
On public safety, he touted increased funding in last year’s budget for 40 additional police officers, as well as a 40 percent reduction in shootings in the last four months of 2013.
He devoted considerable time to his administration’s violence reduction initiative. He said 34 people, some of them among the city’s most violent offenders, have used the resources provided to turn away from a life of crime.
“Four of those young men have a new job in our community,” he said to loud applause.
Berke recalled how his administration secured better living conditions for the 241 residents who were displaced after a fire gutted the basement of Patten Towers. And he highlighted a partnership with private developers to build affordable housing on abandoned, city-owned properties.
His speech also touched on the recent purchase of 35 acres in East Chattanooga. He hopes the former site of the Harriet Tubman housing development will attract new industry to an area with the lowest income per capita in the city.
Berke also focused on efficiency in government with reorganization of city bureaucracy, a new budgeting strategy, a AAA bond rating, and reform of the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund.
The pension overhaul is one of Berke’s biggest accomplishments from his first year in office. The reforms are expected to save the city $227 million through 2038. Berke did not mention the lawsuit challenging one of the overhaul’s key components.
Toby Hewitt, former president of the Fraternal Order of Police who sat on Berke’s pension task force, introduced the mayor Monday evening and was the only city employee to share a stage with him.
“For too long, the experienced ideas and input of public safety professionals have been shunned by prior administrations,” Hewitt said. “We continuously fought a losing battle as we watched our benefits cut and budgeting priorities shifted to areas other than public safety at a time when we were in the midst of crisis of almost daily violence on our streets.”
But Hewitt said that in tackling the pension fund, Berke’s administration built a relationship of mutual respect, transparency and open communication with the police department.
Councilman Moses Freeman said the speech was “just dynamite.”
“It was the first time I’ve heard a mayor deliver on focusing on people,” Freeman said. In particular, the proposal to start a baby college in Chattanooga stood out to him.
“I think it will work,” he said. “All our kids need to grow up being nurtured, learning to read, exploring the world, so they can make a positive contribution to our society.”
Councilman Larry Grohn, a frequent critic of the administration, said the speech was excellent. He said other cities that have implemented programs like the violence reduction initiative have discovered that they are long-term efforts.
He said the issue for the mayor and the City Council is finding a way to continue these programs so that they’re self-perpetuating without becoming a burden to taxpayers.
“We have a lot of great accomplishments that we can look at over the past year, but we have to work on a continuation of these,” he said.
Updated @ 9:13 a.m. on 4/22/14 to correct a typographical error: Berke hopes to end the chronic homelessness of veterans by December 2016, not December 2014, as originally reported.