City Council members listen to a presentation by the Tivoli as they review the fiscal year 2018-2019 city budget. (Photo: Staff)

Some city council members said it may take longer than usual to approve the Berke administration’s budget because they have questions about how money will be spent.

The questions came up during Tuesday’s third budget education session as council members worked to approve the 2018-2019 fiscal year budget.

During the meeting, the council looked at issues relating to capital budgeting, public works and a plan to update the lighting on the Walnut Street Bridge along with renovations to the structure.

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The estimated cost of the lighting project is what a few council people used to highlight their concerns.

The budget currently projects the lighting project to cost about $4 million with another $5 million going separately toward the bridge’s renovations. Of the $4 million, the city expects to receive just more than $2 million from external donations, leaving a $2-million tab for the city.

The city’s $2 million will come from the hotel/motel tax fund, which comes from taxes tourists pay when staying in lodges within the city limits.

Currently, none of the funding for the bridge would be pulled from residential taxes. Hotel/motel taxes can also only be used for improving the riverfront area or paying off a debt from the 21st Century Waterfront Project.

Vice chairman and District 7 City Councilman Erskine Oglesby said he has two main concerns about the budget. One is about the amount the city is willing to spend on the lighting project versus the amount for infrastructure fixes.

“We’re putting $6 million into paving, but proposing $4 million for this lighting project,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me when we have such a need for infrastructure repair.”

His other concern is about where the $2 million would come from if the city is unable to pull together money from unspecified external donors.

District 4 City Councilman Darrin Ledford said he is also concerned about what happens if outside donors don’t help and how the maintenance costs for the lighting project might affect taxpayers in the future.

I’m really interested in what the projected maintenance budget is for the software and hardware for the lighting,” Ledford said. “I just don’t think we know what this will eventually cost taxpayers.”

District 1 City Councilman Chip Henderson said that he’s against the project because there are better ways to spend the funds, such as paying off the 21st Century Waterfront Project debt or replacing the glass panels on the Holmberg Bridge with something less costly.

He also said that he did not see why the lighting project and renovations had to be completed this year when the bridge is not yet in danger of becoming condemned.

In March, City Council approved a $38,000 contract for the project’s conceptual design from Moment Factory, a Canadian company that would design the lighting structure. Chattanooga’s Public Art Commission presented the $4-million projected cost at that time. Henderson was the only councilperson who voted against the contract.

Conversations such as these are what City Council members said is leading them to think more time may need to be spent going over the budget.

“One of our primary purposes and services is the review of the mayor’s proposed budget, and we still have many questions,” Ledford said. “I have never studied a document so in-depth.”

The City of Chattanooga’s fiscal year begins on July 1, which means council needs to approve a spending plan by June 30.

But Ledford said that District 6 City Councilwoman and Budget and Finance Committee Chairwoman Carol Berz is in the process of redrafting a schedule for budget education sessions. Once that is done, the council will have a better understanding of whether the approval process will extend beyond the June 30 deadline.

Berz was unavailable for comment at the time of this story’s publication.

In case the process does extend beyond June 30, Chairman and District 3 City Councilman Ken Smith has asked the City Attorney’s office to craft legislation that would allow the city to continue operating off its fiscal year 2018 city budget until the new budget is approved, Ledford also said.

Smith was also unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Last month, mayor’s office representatives presented the proposed budget to city council.

Neither Mayor Andy Berke or members of his administration were available for phone interviews Wednesday, but Chief Operating Officer Maura Sullivan said in an email:

We want to give the city council all the benefit of being able to have their questions answered and city staff has been working diligently to make that happen throughout this process.

However, we must also be able to run the people’s government and we believe that through the process has afforded enough time, but we stand ready to continue to answer questions as they come forward.

Alina Hunter-Grah is a contributing writer. She is a graduate of The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she received a bachelor’s degree in communication with a minor in political science. Alina has over three years of journalism experience including time spent with CNN and 2nd & Church, a magazine based in Nashville, Tennessee. You can reach Alina at [email protected] or on Twitter @alinahuntergrah

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