Updated at 7:33 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, with comment from city councilman.
State of the CityView 5 Photos
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke outlined plans to address three hot-button national issues at a local level during his sixth annual State of the City address Thursday evening, promising to tackle climate change, school safety and economic mobility in the coming year through new coalitions and community partnerships.
For a second year, the mayor's speech highlighted a CBS news broadcast 50 years ago that called Chattanooga America's dirtiest city. It was an iconic moment that shaped the future of the city, Berke said, as it led to changes in air quality standards and other improvements to make Chattanooga attractive for young residents and developers.
However, the city still faces problems that need to be addressed, he added.
"I want to talk about the last 50 years — with a special emphasis on the last six — and celebrate our progress," Berke said. "I also, though, think we need to be honest about the challenges we still face. "
There are new reports addressing climate-related issues that need to be taken just as seriously, Berke argued, citing a 2016 study that found Chattanooga was the sixth-fastest warming city in the U.S. The mayor called man-made climate change a threat to society, noting extreme weather events in the Chattanooga area during his two terms as mayor: record heat, wildfires and rainfall.
Berke announced the formation of a regional resiliency council of mayors and commissioners in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.
The group will formulate plans and policies to make cities more resilient to the changing climate, as Berke believes the Chattanooga area could be a beacon for cities wanting to combat the issue. The plan will consist of improved emergency response, disaster prevention and support for businesses in resiliency planning. Berke brought it to the attention of area mayors earlier this month at a regional quarterly mayoral meeting. Several involved said they don't yet know the details of the coalition and have asked the mayor for additional information but believe it could be a benefit for the area.
"It sounds like it'd be a win-win for the region," Dade County Executive Ted Rumley said. "A lot of our population works in Chattanooga; they relate to Chattanooga. We try to work regionally the best we can."
One of the biggest steps for the group will be to reduce the region's carbon footprint, Berke said. He pointed to the city's work with the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport to become the first airfield in the U.S. to run completely on solar power. He also announced a plan to build solar panels at Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Berke then moved to the topic of education and school safety during the 37-minute speech, doubling down on his pledge during last year's state of the city speech to add 1,000 high-quality early learning seats to the school system.
In the past year, 365 high-quality seats have been added at several facilities and another 600 seat commitments were announced, many at existing child care facilities, by either improving the programs' quality rating or increasing the number of seats at a facility.
This year's speech brought a new pledge: school partnerships with Chattanooga police officers.
Chattanooga police Chief David Roddy and schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson are working to make sure every school in the city has a police liaison, Berke said. No new officers will be hired, but existing ones will be designated to a school, giving teachers a go-to contact with the police department. He said the liaison would not be a replacement for current school resource officers.
The goal of the partnership is to keep teachers more informed about whether a child is going to school after dealing with a police-involved incident at home.
"We know that a child packs not just a bookbag to school, but also their problems from home," Berke said.
Lastly, Berke turned to his ongoing fight to end homelessness and grow economic mobility — a major platform of his mayoral campaigns.
Two years ago, Berke claimed success in his pledge to end veteran homelessness, which was affirmed in a letter from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Now, the mayor plans to use the same tactics to end homelessness citywide.
The city started an Interagency Council on Homelessness, which developed a plan late last year. Berke announced the city will implement the first steps of that plan by hiring navigators and case managers to get people into homes and support them.
"There are many other components of the plan, and if we work together, we are going to end homelessness in our city once and for all," he said.
New city council chairman Erskine Oglesby applauded the mayor for partnering with other groups in communities to improve resiliency and school safety.
"I'm a strong relationship person," Oglesby said. "For us to be succesful, we have to be able to work together and have to be trusting of one another. We need to come up with plans together that everybody will embrace and move our region forward."
Berke downplayed talk of a possible 2020 run for the U.S. Senate during an interview with the Times Free Press on Tuesday.
In 2018, he had expressed interest in that year's election to replace outgoing Sen. Bob Corker, but he ultimately didn't run. Marsha Blackburn defeated former Gov. Phil Bredesen in the race. The Chattanooga mayor has long been mentioned as a potential candidate for a statewide election, but he said that prospect didn't play a part in his latest initiatives when asked whether the three priorities could be seen as precursors for a national race.
"That's never occurred to me," Berke said.