One of Andy Berke’s first orders of business after he was sworn in as Chattanooga mayor was to plead with the City Council to allow him to turn in the city’s proposed 2013-14 fiscal year budget up to three months late. Berke reasoned that because of the massive overhauls he planned for city government, the delay in presenting the budget was necessary — and it would be worth the wait.
But it wasn’t.
Rather than transforming city government by cutting spending, slashing taxes and dramatically overhauling antiquated departments, Berke colored within the lines.
For a man who promised to “Renew Chattanooga” during his campaign, Berke’s ideas in his first budget are largely feeble and bland. In fact, Berke’s only proposal that isn’t safe is his dodgy decision to spend every single dime of the $212.5 million the city projects to collect in revenue.
Under the mayor’s proposed budget, if revenue projections fall short, the city will be mired in a deficit — and Berke will have to shoulder the blame.
Berke’s proposed budget makes sure to take care of those closest to him first. While city employees are slated to receive a 1.5 percent pay increase, the mayor has chosen to hike the amount earmarked for administrative salaries in his office from $992,632 to about $1.4 million — an increase of 38 percent.
Berke also continues the city’s offensive tradition of taking money from taxpayers to support nonprofits favored by government elite.
The mayor’s budget proposes to increase city taxpayer subsidies to Allied Arts Council by $48,528, resulting in a hefty grand total of $275,000. Berke also pledges to pour $1.1 million into the Tennessee Riverpark, a walking and biking trail, and balloon funding to the Enterprise South Nature Park from $682,000 to nearly $706,000.
Strangely, at the same time Berke is busy promising heaps of tax dollars to the nonprofits and recreational venues utilized most often by Chattanooga’s more-affluent residents (like him), the mayor has chosen to eliminate funding for homeless services. It seems Berke is comfortable being known as the type of politician who panders to the wealthy and well-born at the expense of the least fortunate among us.
Among the few bright spots in Berke’s budget is his proposal to remove the city’s $67,500 annual handout to the River City Company. The nonprofit, which serves as Chattanooga’s de facto downtown redevelopment agency, has failed taxpayers by devouring city and county dollars while actually working to prevent promising businesses from setting up shop downtown. River City’s longstanding opposition to allowing chain restaurants and franchised businesses the opportunity to lease prime downtown commercial properties has stalled Chattanooga’s redevelopment and restricted consumer choice.
Despite calls by many members of the Chattanooga City Council to lease or sell the city’s money-hemorrhaging performance venues, Berke decided to follow in the steps of his not-so-successful predecessor, Ron Littlefield, and waste tax dollars on bailing out the Memorial Auditorium and the Tivoli Theatre. Subsidizing the venues will cost Chattanoogans $820,000 next fiscal year if Berke’s budget is approved.
One of the aspects of the budget proposal Berke seems most proud of is his plan to add 40 additional police officers — an expense that, some would argue, is unnecessary. While the move may make Berke appear tough on crime, the reality is, since violent crime has fallen dramatically in Chattanooga in recent years, the money may be better spent elsewhere.
The mayor also seems quite enamored with his proposed property tax cut, which he made sure to tout in the budget summary the administration presented to the media. That property tax cut is actually a reduction of just 0.17 percent — just a fraction more than diddly-squat.
While Berke’s recommended budget could be worse, it could also be much, much better. For a mayor who has styled himself as a reformer and a visionary, his proposals look frustratingly stale.