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Chattanooga City Mayor Andy Berke announces on Dec. 22, 2016, that the City of Chattanooga will donate $1 million in honor of the Woodmore bus crash victims to help build a new children's hospital.
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David Crockett

Chattanooga mayoral hopefuls David Crockett and Larry Grohn are slamming Mayor Andy Berke's $1 million pledge toward a new Erlanger Children's Hospital to honor of the Woodmore Elementary School bus crash victims.

Last week, the mayor said the city's capital budget would provide the money over a four-year period. The action will require City Council approval.

Berke has compromised council members with a "blatant political stunt," Crockett, a three-time former city councilman, said in an announcement Tuesday.

Grohn, who now represents City Council District 4, said Crockett's criticism was "spot on."

"Andy Berke is attempting to buy voters and take advantage of our community during this devastating tragedy in his re-election bid," Grohn said.

On Wednesday, Berke mayoral campaign manager Tyler Yount responded to the pair's stance in an email.

"Clearly, our opponents believe an investment in high-quality emergency care and long-term medical treatment for children and families in Chattanooga is not a priority," Yount said. "Mayor Berke disagrees with his opponents. For him, healthier kids lead to stronger families, and that's why the city chose to support a new Children's Hospital."

Crockett said Berke had "no apparent interest" in funding the Erlanger Children's Hospital until now, pointing a finger at the mayor's State of the City address and the fiscal 2017 capital budget.

"While we pray for the children and their families who were victims of this terrible tragedy, this political stunt dishonors their memory," Crockett said. "This may be a good cause, but it might not be in the city's mission. The hard part of a mayor's job is not turning down bad causes, but turning down good ones."

Crockett also criticized the pledge because it would have to be approved by a mayor and council members who have not even been elected. The Chattanooga mayor and council elections take place March 7; the council typically votes on the fiscal 2018 budget in June.

Grohn described the $1 million pledge as "an undemocratic move" intended "to bind the new incoming council" over four separate capital budgets.

Berke has said he decided to make the pledge after seeing the professionalism of the Erlanger staff during the Woodmore bus crash crisis. The Erlanger Children's Hospital emergency room treated more than two dozen students injured in the deadly accident.

"We had first responders, doctors, nurses, and administrators who poured their hearts and souls into caring for these children and their families," Berke said.

Hospital staff told him a lack of private rooms meant close quarters, while medical staff and families tended to critically hurt children in common rooms, he said. As each child's emergency unfolded, families could hear one another as they suffered and worried, their nightmares only separated by curtains.

Donald Mueller, vice president and CEO of the Children's Hospital at Erlanger, issued a statement praising Berke and the city council for recognizing the importance of building a new facility.

"This investment will allow us to better serve the families in our region for years to come," Mueller said. "A new Children's Hospital is a vital component to our community and our future."

Erlanger officials said the hospital has raised $25.5 million of the $40 million needed to launch the initial phase of a new children's facility planned for the south side of 3rd Street.

While Erlanger now does not receive money from Chattanooga, it has in the past. Up until 2011, the city contributed $1.5 million a year as part of a sales tax revenue-sharing agreement. Hamilton County provides $1.5 million annually to Erlanger.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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