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Chattanooga kicked off the 2022 budget season this week, gathering citizen input to set priorities for a tight budget restricted by COVID-19.

Representatives of Mayor Andy Berke's office met virtually with citizens on Monday night for the first of three input sessions.

"Our budgeting process starts with our mission, and Mayor Berke's mission is to break down the barriers that prevent people from living the life they want in our community," said Tyler Yount, director of special projects. "Our vision as a city government is to be a city that empowers Chattanoogans to build an equitable, authentic and inclusive community, prosperity and a high quality of life.

"So when we start our budget process, that's our ultimate aim."

To do so, the city does a performance-based budgeting process, meaning it bases the annual budget off of a set of priorities, investing in items that work toward those goals.

The city gathered input on four primary budgeting priorities set by Berke in 2013; growing economy, stronger neighborhoods, safer streets, and smarter students and stronger families.

This year, however, Yount cautioned residents that the city would be limited in its spending due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

"And this year's budget is going to be a little bit different, mostly because of the hard times that we're going through as a community, both with the recent Easter tornadoes and the COVID-19 pandemic," he said, citing a survey by the National League of Cities that showed that 9 in 10 cities would be less able to meet their budgeting needs in the coming year, due to slowed tax revenue caused by the pandemic.

"And that's the same with us. In the city of Chattanooga, our sales tax revenue is expected to be down 8-10%, and on average cities across the country right now are anticipating 13% decline in revenues," he said. "And we have to be mindful of this, especially tonight."

Consequently, Yount said, community input is more valuable than ever.

"So it's super important for us to hear from you about what your priorities are, because this year's budget is one where we're going to have to make tough decisions," he said. "What you say here tonight and what your neighbors say to us throughout this process is going to be the foundation of how we make those hard decisions."

At the meeting Monday, citizens provided dozens of suggestions for community improvement including:

Stronger Neighborhoods

— Better pedestrian infrastructure through improved and additional sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting, etc.

— Additional community gathering spaces (like parks).

— Public transportation accessible in more parts of town, improved bus stops.

— Better electronic communication options for neighborhoods to contact the city.

 

Safer Streets

— Additional resources for the Family Justice Center and domestic violence victims.

— Improved outreach from police to community.

— Additional police presence and community policing in neighborhoods.

— Investment in mental health resources and trauma response.

— Better vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

 

Growing Economy

— Increased access to higher wage jobs, with emphasis on the senior, formerly incarcerated and under-employed demographics.

— Training and professional development opportunities

— Incentives for businesses to encourage job growth, economic growth

— Investing in female- and minority-owned businesses

 

Smarter Students and Stronger Families

— Trade, vocational and skills training, including arts

— Accessible healthcare and mental health services

— Promote Youth and Family Development centers, provide inclusive programs for children and families

— Closing the digital divide among students

— Provide more affordable childcare support

— Improve and promote library programs and potentially add branch(es)

Virtual input sessions will be held on Thursday and Monday from 5:30-7 p.m. To register for a session or fill out an online budget input form, visit connect.chattanooga.gov/bfo/.

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

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