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- Providing 1.5 percent pay increase to 2,700 employees
- Adding 40 more officers to the police department
- Funding a federal prosecutor
- Piloting affordable housing program
- Allocating money to buy the former Harriet Tubman housing site
- Imposing a 9.8 percent sewer fee increase
- Expanding literacy programming at city recreation centers
After months of talking about tackling the growing number of shootings and gang violence in the Scenic City, Mayor Andy Berke unveiled a budget that bolsters the police force to its highest level in city history and gives officers a 1.5 percent raise.
“I don’t think you’ve ever seen a budget more focused on public safety,” Berke said Wednesday.
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Berke proposed adding 40 officers to the police department, which will bring the number of sworn officers to 486. Police officials said the move will put more officers on the streets and boost the number of criminal investigators.
Berke also pointed to a city funded federal prosecutor position as another strategy to curbing violence and making an example of the worst criminals in Chattanooga.
But union leaders and some community leaders said they will wait to see how these plans are implemented before weighing in on whether the mayor will improve public safety.
“I’m grateful he wants to add that many [officers],” said Sgt. Tim Tomisek, president of International Brotherhood of Police Officers. “But now we’ve got to put the necessary resources in place. It’s not going to happen over night.”
The mayor’s proposed $212 million budget was unveiled Wednesday at a City Council meeting, where elected officials got their first glimpse at how the mayor’s office took what was a traditional budgeting process and shifted it toward Budgeting for Outcomes.
In this plan, Berke took $7 million from departments to fund his top four initiatives: safer streets, stronger neighborhoods and growing economy, smarter students and stronger families, and innovative government. The funds will be allocated specific projects.
Chief Operating Officer Andrew Kean said the mayor’s office found the money by asking the city’s operating departments such as police and transportation, to figure out where to trim their own budgets.
The city also found places where the former administration had over-budgeted in departments. But Kean couldn’t provide specific figures — or departments — on where the money came from.
The funds will go toward city projects that include taking vacant and abandoned land the city owns and working with private developers to create affordable housing and boosting local recreational centers to continue reading programs for youths.
Another initiative Berke has proposed is the city circumventing private developers looking to buy the former Harriet Tubman housing development, demolishing the public housing buildings and developing the land for a company to purchase.
While Chattanooga’s revenue growth is expected to be flat this year, residents won’t see any property tax hike. However, residents will face a nearly 10 percent stormwater fee increase, which for the average home equals a $2.84 monthly increase.
Councilwoman Carol Berz said she isn’t surprised by the budget. Berke did what he said he would do by focusing on public safety, she said.
Others like Councilman Moses Freeman said he is pleased the mayor’s initiatives focus on curbing crime, and his district could benefit the most.
With 20 new officers graduating from the police academy in September, Police Chief Bobby Dodd said he will immediately start to fill vacant positions so the 40 new positions can go to curbing crime on the streets.
Dodd plans to replenish the criminal investigative unit, add more officers to the city’s crime suppression unit and add officers in areas were they have been shorthanded, such as Ooltewah, Gunbarrel Road and the Hixson area.
“This will help us out tremendously,” he said Wednesday.
Also officers who were kept out of last year’s 3 percent raise for other city employees will be included in this 1.5 percent round, which Dodd said will help with morale.
Tomisek said the raise will help, but officers are still wary because they don’t know what is happening to their pension since the city announced a company would begin studying the police and fire pension fund.
The union leader also questioned how the city will be able to pump out 40 officers in a short amount of time.
Dodd said he plans to select about 30 new recruits to go through the police academy, which would finish training next spring. He also wants to recruit 10 officers, who could help bolster the police department sooner.
RUN LIKE A BUSINESS
Some local business leaders said they are excited Berke is taking a business approach to the budget and are anxious to see how his new programs could affect the city.
“It’s a very businesslike approach to budgeting, to really look at what’s effective already and find new money based on getting rid of things that don’t produce results,” said Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce spokesman J.Ed. Marston. “There’s a lot of excitement about the prospects of producing results here.”
Berke said the city’s new Economic and Community Development department will go after vacant lots the city already owns through back taxes and work with local developers in hopes of creating affordable housing.
The pilot project could look at working with private investors to create neighborhoods where some of these vacant lots proliferate, Kean said.
The council will have to dive into the budget before complimenting or criticizing the mayor on his first budget, said Councilman Larry Grohn. But the tea party activist councilman said he’s impressed the mayor is committed to looking at a more efficient and accountable government, especially coming from a “liberal Democrat.”
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...