A routine business session for the Chattanooga City Council ended with something of a bang Tuesday as city residents pressed their elected representatives for more information on tax breaks for businesses and plans to sell three city-owned buildings.
Mayor Andy Berke has asked the council to declare the buildings — the city hall annex across 11th Street, the Water Building on Lindsay Street and the former city wellness center on 10th Street — surplus. He hopes they can be sold and redeveloped to advance the downtown Innovation District and maybe provide some moderate-income housing.
The council is supposed to vote next week on surplusing the buildings. But as of Tuesday, council members and the public hadn't heard from Berke's administration on key issues, such as what the buildings are worth, where the city employees who work in them will go, and whether the city might sell them and then rent back space from a private owner, as it proposed to do with a King Street parking lot earlier this year. That arrangements would have cost city taxpayers thousands.
City resident Franklin McCallie, a member of consumer watchdog group Accountability for Taxpayer Money (ATM), told city residents and the council it was "very aggravating and very frustrating and insulting" the administration hasn't provided more information.
"I don't know how many times we have to tell Mayor Berke that citizens' concerns are just as important as those of developers," McCallie said to audience applause. "We're being told we're not smart enough, not good enough and not wise enough to build this city. If this is the thought, it is a mistake."
McCallie's wife, Tresa, and ATM founder Helen Burns Sharp questioned the council about the city's criteria for the property tax breaks known as payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs.
The council is reviewing a set of procedures for PILOTs, but Tresa McCallie said the city's actual policies — what are the criteria for granting them, how are they policed, and what are the methods for clawing back money if the businesses that get them don't live up to their policies — are nowhere to be found.
"When does the city respond to citizen or council requests? If the council finds out, how does the public [find out]?" Tresa McCallie asked.
Councilwoman Carol Berz said she remembered approving policies a couple of years ago and thought they are on the city website. She asked the council administrative staff to find them and post them for the public to see.
Another city resident had a request rather than a complaint. Maria Smith, of Hixson, asked the council to show support for the homegrown Chattanooga Football Club now that a Utah businessman has secured a franchise for a professional soccer team to land in Chattanooga.
Smith said she'd like council members to instruct the Stadium Corp., which operates Finley Stadium, to commit to the "long-term success" of the CFC and "not go with an unproven team that may not do anything for the community."
Finally, Louise Hammonds of the Oak Grove community brought something the council may not hear all that often: a compliment for the Chattanooga Police Department.
Hammonds, 80, said two men held her up in a parking lot one night last week, put a gun to her head, and stole her car. She called police, who were there in minutes, she said, and had found and returned her car by shortly after 1 a.m.
"I've never got treated any better anywhere. We've got the best in the country," Hammonds said to more audience applause.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.