Chattanooga: Budget cut would mean layoffs

Chattanooga: Budget cut would mean layoffs

April 11th, 2010 by Cliff Hightower in Politics Local

Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press Chattanooga police field training officer Edward Tinney fills his tank with fuel before his shift on George Team in sector 3.

More than 100 city employees could be laid off, most of them police officers, if the Chattanooga City Council decides to reduce next year's budget by 5 percent, records show.

"People need to see what the effect is," Mayor Ron Littlefield said Friday. "Everybody says, 'Can't you squeeze more?' Yes, we can squeeze more, but there's a price to be paid for that."

City Council members are reviewing three 2011 fiscal scenarios: a budget that increases spending by $25 million; a budget that maintains spending at current levels; and a budget that reduces spending by 5 percent.

Councilman Manny Rico said Friday he doesn't know if a budget reduction is an option, considering most of the layoffs would occur within the police department.

"You can forget about that then," he said. "To me, public safety and public works are the untouchables. You've got to have them."

Reducing overall department spending by 5 percent would force the layoff of at least 109 employees, including 85 sworn police officers, 10 employees in Public Works, 10 in the Department of Parks and Recreation, two in general government and one each in Personnel and Neighborhood Services, documents show.

City Hall also would shut down on Fridays, allowing no one in the building but cleaning crews. The land development office in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Development Resource Center on Market Street would close early on Fridays and the Department of General Services would go to four-day work weeks, records show.

Building a budget by keeping spending level with this year's could result in at least 51 layoffs, 49 of them sworn police officers, records show.

The City Council is grappling with revenues that are not meeting budget expectations. Year-end projections call for almost $2.5 million less in revenue than last year, from $167.5 million to $165 million, records show.

Mr. Littlefield said his budget proposal, which he will present May 18, likely would be closer to the $197 million figure that would raise spending, and he suggested a property tax increase might be needed.

"We can't say what that increase will be," he said.

The city last passed a property tax increase on Sept. 11, 2001. The current rate is $2.20 per $100 of assessed value.

Councilwoman Carol Berz, chairwoman of the Budget, Personnel and Finance Committee, said the council may need to look at raising revenue, not necessarily with property tax increases. The council will explore all options, she said, but she is inclined toward the $197 million budget.

"I would hope it would be fully implemented," she said. "The city has a lot of needs, and they aren't (a) wish list."

Mr. Littlefield said other revenue sources, such as the hotel/motel tax, have been "tapped out." The hotel/motel tax is paying for the 21st Century Waterfront project, he said. The city sticker would have to go to referendum for voter approval, and any "sin" taxes would need state approval, he said.

Dan Johnson, Mr. Littlefield's chief of staff, said last week the department heads have done a good job of turning in budgets that accurately reflect their needs.

"The last five years we've been in office, we've squeezed," he said. "We're cutting meat."

DEPARTMENT HEADS SPEAK OUT

Interim police Chief Mark Rawlston said last week that the department's budget did not include made-up layoffs or imaginary numbers.

"Those are people," he said. "We've cut everything extra out. There's no frill."

Larry Zehnder, director of Parks and Recreation, said Friday his department already hasreduced hours at recreation centers around town, just as efforts to get teenagers off the streets are intensifying.

"You keep cutting, it's going to be seen in many ways," he said.

One of those ways could be reflected in more crime, with teenagers finding themselves with nothing to do, he said. His department is trying to give teens something to do, he said.

"I'd certainly rather prevent problems than deal with problems," he said.

Fire Chief Randy Parker said his department submitted a budget with no reductions. Because of annexation, there are more needs, he said.

The fire department just had a class for new firefighters, and a new fire station is about to open at Enterprise South, he said.

A 5 percent budget reduction is out of the question, he said.

"It would devastate us," Chief Parker said.

BY THE NUMBERS

* $197 million: Amount that meets all department requests

* $172 million: Amount that keeps spending at current levels

* $167 million: Amount that cuts spending by 5 percent from this year's spending levels

* 109: Potential layoffs under a budget reduced 5 percent

* 51: Potential layoffs if the city maintains current spending

Source: Chattanooga budget documents

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