The entire population of Ridgeside could fit into the orchestra level of the Tivoli Theatre — and it would still be three-fifths empty.
“It’s a fairly tight community,” said Brant Mason, mayor of the city of less than 400 people. “Everyone knows each other and we’ve always enjoyed our independence.”
Now, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield is threatening the independence of what he calls “just a little neighborhood,” as Chattanooga mayors before him have done for decades.
Ridgeside’s residents voted in 1931 to incorporate on the east side of Missionary Ridge and, at the time, the city of Chattanooga remained a few miles away. As Chattanooga grew, it completely surrounded the hillside community.
There are no retail stores in Ridgeside and no industry. The city consists of about 150 homes and 389 people, U.S. Census Bureau figures show. The only revenue comes from property tax collections at a rate of $1.80 per $100 of assessed value, city officials said. Ridgeside’s property tax rate is about 40 cents less than Chattanooga’s.
The city contracts out work such as installation of speed humps on streets, mowing parks and repairing sidewalks. The city also contracts out fire and police, paying a fee to the city of East Ridge for services.
Now the fees for those services have gone up, so the city decided to shop around for other prices, city officials said.
One of the cities they turned to was Chattanooga.
Mr. Littlefield has proposed a series of agenda items over the next four years that includes consolidation of services and annexation. During an editorial board meeting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Mr. Littlefield suggested Ridgeside is an example of a city that’s “holding out” against consolidation of services.
“They’ve got a (Chattanooga) city fire station sitting within sight,” Mr. Littlefield said. “If you cut down the trees, it’s right there.”
But he said he made it abundantly clear there is only one way for them to get any type of services.
“My response, always, as Gene Roberts’ response and other mayors’ always was, ‘Why don’t you just give up your charter and become part of the city, and then, everything takes care of itself,’” Mr. Littlefield said.
Staff Photo by John Rawlston Randy Dunagan is a commissioner for the city of Ridgeside.
Mr. Mason said the city is not going to give up its charter.
“That’s not on the table,” he said.
The city was paying $30,000 annually for police and fire services, Mr. Mason said. The rate went up to $60,000 annually in January and will go up to $90,000 annually, he said. The rate change wasn’t bothersome for residents, Mr. Mason said, the city just wanted to find a cheaper one.
He said the city also asked the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office about providing police protection. The response was that the nearest manned sheriff’s office station was 10 to 11 minutes away and the department did not believe it could give the city adequate protection, city officials said.
Mr. Mason said it looks as if Ridgeside will continue with East Ridge services.
“We want to pay our fair share,” Mr. Mason said. “We don’t want anyone to subsidize us.”
East Ridge Mayor Mike Steele said he and the East Ridge City Council asked Police Chief Eddie Phillips to find out how much each East Ridge resident was paying for police and fire service and apply that per-capita rate to Ridgeside.
That analysis resulted in the rate hike, he said.
Dr. Doug Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia, said a small city in the middle of a much larger city isn’t unusual.
“They have an identity,” he said. “They don’t want to lose it.”
Residents of such cities, who usually skew older, have a fear of increasing taxes and decreasing services, he said. Folks who identify themselves with their small towns don’t often want to give them up, Dr. Bachtel said.
“These things don’t end easily or amicably,” he said.
Ridgeside City Commissioner Randy Dunagan said city officials do not wholeheartedly disagree with consolidation of services. He said he thought it would be a good idea that could save taxpayers money. But no one wants to give up the city’s charter.
“That’s the feedback we’ve gotten from the residents,” he said. “They wouldn’t want that.”
Mike Szczykowski, and his wife Lil, have lived in Ridgeside since 1968. He said at one time he was in support of metro government, but not anymore. Mrs. Szczykowski said she would never want to be incorporated by Chattanooga.
Ridgeside has its own swimming pool, park and tennis courts, she said. Once Chattanooga took control, everything would change, she said.
“The city could do anything they wanted here,” she said. “It becomes city facilities.”