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Since Andy Berke was first elected mayor of Chattanooga in 2013, the city has worked to build a performance-based budget, hinging on five key priorities: high-performing government, growing economy, stronger neighborhoods, safer streets, and smarter students and stronger families.

As the administration begins to form its seventh and penultimate budget, council members, community members and department heads are sharing what they believe are the best ways to support the city's objectives.

"The budget is the most important thing we do in city government," Berke said at a community input meeting on Dec. 2. "Where we put our money is ultimately what we care most about. We focus on these ideas that impact citizens and then we work to figure how to have safer streets, how to grow a better economy and how to tailor the budget to use the taxpayers' dollars in the most productive ways."

Berke told reporters there are always key projects that receive special emphasis in each budget — touting the $1.3 million slotted for growing the city's homelessness program in the FY 2020 budget — but did not share any programs or areas of interest slated to top the FY 2021 budget.

"We're still getting input and we will continue to do so over the next several weeks, then our department heads will look at how to best address the public's needs and then will start looking at what money can go to what projects," Berke said. "With budgeting for outcomes, we look at priorities first and then how to get there, not just deciding up front how much money each office gets."

 

Community input

Dec. 2 was the first of three community meetings the city will host in December to collect feedback on the 2021 budget.

The meeting in Hixson consisted of about a dozen community members addressing city staff about ideas surrounding each of the five priorities.

They were asked to share what each category meant to them and how the city could improve upon its service relative to each priority.

"The meetings really help us gauge what the community thinks we need to do, what we need to stop doing and what angles of an issue we may not be considering," Chattanooga Chief Operations Officer Maura Black Sullivan said ahead of the meeting. "It's one of the most important parts to go and hear what people actually think and what our current budgeting is and is not doing for them."

Citizens, the majority of whom live in Northern Chattanooga and Hixson, used the first meeting to call for transportation, wage and social program improvements.

The most common concerns at the meeting were:

— Paving, traffic lights and other traffic safety.

— Livable wages and better employment options.

— Improved public transportation routes and hours of operation.

— Workforce development opportunities.

Other common themes were increasing social services, with suggestions ranging from help with home repairs for low-income homeowners and accessible contraception to sex education and equitable resources for neighborhoods across the city.

"It's just important to me that whatever we do, it's available for everyone in the community, not just people living in certain neighborhoods," resident Katie Larue said. "There are some things like roads that affect almost everyone, but there are other things that are a lot worse in some areas of the city, and it does no good to make the city better for some neighborhoods and leave the others behind."

The city will host two more meetings for community input on Monday at the downtown Chattanooga Public Library and Dec. 16 at the Family Justice Center. Both meetings are scheduled from 6-8 p.m. and are open to the public.

Residents who cannot attend either meeting can provide input online at https://connect.chattanooga.gov/bfo/.

 

Council hedges

The Chattanooga City Council, which is ultimately responsible for approving the city's budget, has expressed interest in being more involved in the budget formation process this year but is struggling to shift all nine members into gear in time to weigh in.

After an October survey by the city's Internal Audit Office highlighted road paving as the No. 1 citizen concern in each of the city's nine districts, several council members pledged to address the issue and request more paving funds in the next budget.

"I'm going to ask that we begin working with the mayor's office right now to once and for all — seeing as how some of us have one more crack at this with next year's budget — get some real money in the budget for paving," Public Works and Transportation Committee Chairman and District 2 Councilman Jerry Mitchell said in October. "I'm going to ask the council that we really begin focusing on that part of the budget right now."

Budget and Finance Committee Chairwoman and District 6 Councilwoman Carol Berz said the council needs to be more involved in the budgeting process to ensure change is made.

"Budgeting for outcomes has got to be based on what outcomes you want. And so if we don't have a plan to know what outcomes we want, what do we budget for?" Berz asked. "The city operates on a budget that [council] approves, and we are not potted plants. What the city needs is checks and balances. Every year, [the council] seems surprised that we haven't done our work to balance administrative stuff. Council has every right and we should be putting forth what we think should be in the budget. Not telling folks how to ask, but telling them what outcomes we are looking for, and we have yet to do that."

With the momentum from the paving outcry, the council discussed adjusting its individual district budget mission statements and beginning council discussions on the budget sooner than usual.

While Berz set a deadline of Dec. 3 for mission statements to be returned in order to ignite council discussion, only two of her colleagues — District 4 Councilman Darrin Ledford and District 5 Councilman Russell Gilbert — returned their updated priorities.

"It's sophomoric for us to not get involved and expect to like what's done in the budget," Berz said Tuesday. "We need to either get it together and work on this, which is what I thought we all wanted, or just wait until they come to us with the budget in May and not have a say in it."

Berz told the Times Free Press after the meeting that her frustration is due to the council's lack of authority later in the budget process when they are asked to vote on the budget as a whole, but cannot make itemized changes.

"We don't have line item veto [power], so by then there's nothing we can do about what's in the budget, we have to vote the whole thing up or down," Berz said. "We need to be more business-like and get involved early rather than just having to deal with whatever ends up in the budget Dragging our feet when the process is already underway is not prudent."

Sarah Grace Taylor can be reached at 423-757-6416 or staylor@timesfreepress.com or on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.

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