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Some members of the Chattanooga City Council are positioning themselves for a fight as budget season approaches.

Members of the council questioned the city attorney Tuesday afternoon to figure out their legal abilities when it comes to approving, amending or denying the city's budget, which will be presented to the body in about two months.

Traditionally, the council has approved or denied the budget as a whole after it is presented in early May by the mayor's office.

Now, an increasingly skeptical council wants to make sure it has the right to nix certain budget items when the time comes.

"I get that we vote [the budget] up or down, but we need to know if we can amend it or vote on part of it while not approving every item in the whole thing," Councilman Darrin Ledford said during Tuesday's strategic planning meeting. "It's like a Christmas present we know that it is coming, but we have to wait and hope we're going to like it."

While the council has not previously used any such authority, it actually does have the ability to make modifications to the budget with a majority vote, according to City Attorney Phil Noblett.

"The charter does not address a line-item power for the council directly, but [the council is] given the authority to approve, deny or modify the budget with five votes," Noblett said Tuesday. " ... so the council could modify the budget like any ordinance with a majority vote."

That authority could result in later changes to the budget than the city is used to if, for the first time, the council tweaked the budget after it passes through the mayor's office.

Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod suggested that if the council were involved more in the formation of a budget, such a line-item veto power wouldn't be the topic of discussion.

"If we could just be there and be a part of the actual creation of the budget, we wouldn't be having this discussion," Coonrod said, asking staff for details on upcoming budget meetings. "I want to be there so it's not such a surprise and so I can make sure my input is heard before it's put together and it's too late."

Kerry Hayes, chief of staff for Mayor Andy Berke, told the Times Free Press that while there are no interdepartmental budget planning meetings such as what Coonrod was referencing, the administration is happy to let the council be more involved.

"I think we have the most engaged and transparent budget process of any city our size," Hayes said after the council meeting. "Of course [council members] can be as engaged as they want. In fact, we're happy to welcome them to be more engaged in the budget process."

While the actual issues driving the defensive budgeting stance are unclear, many council members have been growing increasingly critical of the mayor's office and staff's financial decisions over recent months, culminating in the power struggle over the budget.

The council will have meetings to discuss specific departmental budgets during strategic planning meetings beginning in mid-May, after the budget is presented, and concluding in late June when it goes to vote.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or staylor@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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