Chattanooga city court on the chopping block again amid 2020 budget discussions

Chattanooga city court on the chopping block again amid 2020 budget discussions

May 21st, 2019 by Sarah Grace Taylor in Local Regional News

Some Chattanooga City Council members want to evaluate doing away with city court in light of a tight 2020 budget.

In a five-hour budget education session Tuesday, the council heard from leaders of the city's legislative, operations, finance, human resources and other departments to assess key elements of the fiscal year 2020 budget, proposed by Mayor Andy Berke last week.

During the finance department's presentation on city court, Councilman Anthony Byrd noted a few different points at which the court seemed to be losing revenue, including the lack of enforcement on automated traffic tickets and the officers' choice to assign tickets to either city or county court.

"In my opinion, the reason [automated ticket revenue] is going down is the lack of accountability or enforcement, so that's a line item that's going to end up going away," Byrd said. "And then when city officers write tickets, they still can choose the option of going to city or county [court]. If all of those came to city court, that money would come to the court, too."

The discussion prompted Budget and Finance Committee chairwoman and Councilwoman Carol Berz to question the solvency of having a city court, suggesting that the city conduct a study to determine what it would cost to have the city operate entirely out of the Hamilton County General Sessions Court.

"If we got rid of city court, got out of the court business, and everything went to sessions court, where most of these laws come from, would we have to pay sessions court anything?" Berz asked. "We should be planning for these things."

Councilman Darren Ledford added that the city should conduct a study on the subject.

This is not the first time the council has considered axing all or some of the city court functions. Most recently, the council proposed eliminating one of the court's two divisions and the judgeship that goes along with it. With four council members in favor, four against and one absent, the vote to turn the decision over to citizens in the November 2018 election narrowly failed.

Byrd clarified that he was not advocating for cutting or replacing the court, but rather strengthening it.

"We either have to build up this court or we are going to have to watch it leave," Byrd said late Tuesday. "I don't want to see the city give up any of its judicial power. I think we need to strengthen this court."

No decisions were made toward the commencement of this study, but Berz's revival of the issue once again brought the idea of paring down or eliminating the city court to the divided group.

With this and other discussions, the first of five budget education sessions lasted about 90 minutes longer than scheduled, forcing council members to forgo the regularly scheduled strategic planning meeting.

The council will have the other four budget education sessions on May 28, June 4 and June 11, each from 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m., and June 18 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

A public hearing for the budget will be at the June 11 council meeting at 6 p.m. The council will vote on the budget on June 18 and June 25 at the 6 p.m. council meetings.

The budget schedule is subject to modification by the council.

Contact staff writer Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.