published Monday, June 3rd, 2013

Chattanooga's Mayor Berke keen on being thrifty


by Cliff Hightower
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke talks about the frugality he's demonstrating in City Hall on Friday.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke talks about the frugality he's demonstrating in City Hall on Friday.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke made it clear to his staff his first week in office what the goal would be — don't unnecessarily spend money.

So they went on a scavenger hunt across city departments looking for used chairs to put in City Hall.

"I told them they could have any desk they wanted," Berke said. "They'd just have to pay for it themselves."

The objective? Don't spend a dime of taxpayer money to get the comfy chair.

In his first six weeks, the new mayor has shown he's thrifty. He said his restructuring of city departments will save $380,000. His theme in almost every speech is efficiency and making sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.

His frugality is on display on the third floor of City Hall: Where once there was flourish, with paintings and knickknacks, the office is now bare bones. The walls are dotted with unused picture hangers and rooms that were offices now are empty but for conference tables.

"I didn't want the city to pay for preferences," he said. "I lead by example."

Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem said he is not surprised to see the mayor looking at every way to save money. He said he and the other council members heard again and again on the campaign trail that city residents want the government to curtail spending.

"What I've gathered from seeing the mayor is he is trying to utilize the dollars in the most efficient manner," Hakeem said. "Some would call it, 'getting the best bang for your buck.'"

Berke said this isn't just a ploy but who he is. He finds it offensive when government officials spend just to spend. He wants to look at where every last dollar goes.

Asked if he's like that at home, Berke laughed.

"Let's not get into that," he said.

Berke wouldn't give any details of the city budget he is preparing -- his first. He wouldn't say whether he expects it to be more, less or the same as this fiscal year's $206 million budget.

Council Vice Chairman Chip Henderson, who is a Republican, said he heard the Democratic mayor talk of being fiscally conservative and isn't completely surprised at his tightfisted approach.

"I was at least hopeful future ambitions would drive a more conservative approach," he said. "Just because they're Democrats doesn't mean they couldn't be fiscal conservatives."

Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him at twitter.com/cliffhightower or facebook.com/cliff.hightower.

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