Mayor has big plans for last years

Mayor has big plans for last years

May 8th, 2011 by Cliff Hightower in News

Each weekday morning, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield comes into his office and sits at the refurbished desk he found in storage six years ago when he was first elected.

Through large glass windows, he can look down 11th Street toward the old Farmers' Market, the site of what he considers his first accomplishment as mayor - buying the property and starting to renovate it as a homeless complex.

In two years, the term-limited mayor will leave the desk and the view behind. But he has plans to stay busy as long as he's there.

"Packing things into two years comes naturally," Littlefield said. "I've done it before. This is the longest job I've ever had."

Many of his previous jobs, from serving as public works commissioner in Chattanooga to working as acting director of planning and development in Walker County, have been short stints. His previous longest jobs were four-year terms on the Chattanooga City Council in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Littlefield said his biggest dream is to see the city and Hamilton County consolidated as one government. His other goals are smaller - an emergency shelter at the homeless complex on 11th Street and renovating the downtown Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library.

"My pet project is consolidation," he said. "No doubt about that."

Win some, lose some

The last six years have been filled with controversy and some defeats, but Littlefield sees several successes as well. One is raising stormwater fees to deter higher penalties for Chattanooga from federal and state environmental agencies. The city is accused of violating federal water quality regulations by improper testing and repeated sewage overflows.

He lists other successes: the $10 million Summit of Softball complex off Apison Pike; expansion at Alstom; and particularly the partnership with the county to bring in the new Volkswagen plant, which recently started producing new Passats.

He said he also oversaw changes within city government by installing an internal audit department, allowing development of a city health clinic and switching city attorney duties from a contracted service to a city office.

But he lost some battles, too.

Council members voted down some of Littlefield's annexation attempts two years ago. Of 11 areas the city wanted to annex, the council blocked two - one in Hixson and the other in Apison.

Last year, the council reduced his proposed 33 percent property tax increase to 19 percent. The council also sliced his initial stormwater fee increases for business by about 33 percent, but added a graduated five-year increase.

Littlefield couldn't persuade the council to bring retiring Police Chief Freeman Cooper back on a contract basis.

His attempt to stop police from taking home cars was widely unpopular. In the end, the city agreed to let officers who live within the city limits keep their cars.

Littlefield said he knows some of his decisions have been unpopular, but he said that comes with the job.

"I'm not thinking about my legacy," he said. "Anything I do is not to have my name scratched on a plaque somewhere."

Recall push lives

But one of Littlefield's biggest critics doubts he can succeed on metro government.

"I don't think there is interest in the county," said Jim Folkner, founder of the group Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield. "What he seems to be more concerned about is spending our money."

Folkner sparked an effort to oust Littlefield last year that died when a judge ruled against the group. The appeal is now before the state Court of Appeals in Knoxville.

Folkner said his group is still pushing for a recall and thinks it will happen.

He said the mayor is widely unpopular for the rise of gang violence on his watch, for tripling residential stormwater fees and for fighting with the county over the expiring sales-tax agreement.

Council sees success

Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said some of Littlefield's proposals have been unpopular with city departments and the public, such as stormwater fees and take-home cars.

Ladd said he needs to mend some fences, but there are still many things that can be accomplished.

She said he has made major headway in starting the dialogue on metropolitan government, and while she doesn't see consolidation happening within his last two years, he has set the tone for the next mayor.

"I think the pressure will definitely be there for the next mayor," she said.

But Councilman Jack Benson, who has been on the legislative body for eight years, said he sees Littlefield's administration ending with a grand finale.

Mayors can accomplish a lot in a short time, he said. He cited former Mayor Bob Corker, whose 21st Century Waterfront project was finished in three years.

He believes consolidated government will happen because the sentiment for it is snowballing.

"There's no reversing this now," Benson said. "I think it will lead to metro. That will be his legacy."