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Chattanooga City Councilman Anthony Byrd / Staff File Photo by Robin Rudd

This story was corrected at 10:05 a.m. on Sept. 9 to indicate some employees will get a raise to the federal poverty rate, not the minimum wage.

Chattanooga City Council members will vote on several proposed budget amendments from the mayor's office this month, potentially providing raises for some city employees while stripping away those accidentally budgeted for others.

In a budget and finance committee meeting Tuesday, council members were briefed on newly proposed changes to the budget that took effect July 1, including an amendment undoing $1.5 million in erroneously budgeted raises for city employees.

"This amendment is before you because we have made a mistake. A human error was made, and we need to correct it," Chief Operating Officer Maura Black Sullivan said Tuesday. "It's a pretty simple explanation: the wrong document was attached ... the general pay plan document attached to the fiscal year 2021 budget is not the document that we presented to you, it is not what we discussed, it contains increases in some pay, but not for all.

"We told you that there would be no increases in pay this year in an effort to balance the budget in this time of reduced revenues, and that of course is what we need to do," she added.

The city planned to budget significant pay increases this year after a compensation study that highlighted disparities between Chattanooga and comparable markets, but removed the raises in the final weeks of budget season, crippled by the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. which created a more than $8 million loss in projected revenue.

According to Sullivan, the error was the result of an incomplete and inaccurate draft of the schedule of wages for hundreds of lower- and mid-level employees being included in the version of the budget presented to and approved by the City Council in June. The city caught the error in July and never paid out the increased wage amounts.

Council members were briefed on the situation last week, but used Tuesday's meeting to try and understand the seemingly avoidable error.

"I'm not sure what your documents look like, but do we not have big red letters posted across the top of the page 'working document,' as opposed to 'final document,'" Chairman Chip Henderson asked, referencing a similar practice in the construction business.

"That's a great idea," Sullivan said Tuesday, adding that the city will work to create fail-safes to avoid similar situations.

After the amendment votes, Sullivan said, the city will be able to issue back pay to some employees who were slated to receive small wage increases starting in July to bring them up to the federal poverty rate.

Last week Sullivan said she expects the error to cost the city some money, but it was unclear if the $375,000 in wages reflected in the current budget that has been withheld will be retroactively paid to employees affected by the error.

The council is also slated to vote on an amendment to approve a $1.5 million capital donation to a local partnership providing internet to low-income students and more routine amendments to accept more than $500,000 in federal transportation funding and appropriately $150,000 in remaining fiscal year 2020 capital funds to the Southeast Tennessee Development District.

 

PUBLIC INPUT

In light of the significant budget changes on the table, Councilman Anthony Byrd suggested the council give more time to budget amendments on policing proposed by constituents during a heated budget season this summer.

"I think we need to address the other budget amendments that were presented to us at some point in time," Byrd said. "That's going to be a very huge issue, I think, when these budget amendments come up."

The amendments were written by the local Democratic Socialists of America group, one of many political organizations that protested and directly asked the council to defund or divest from the Chattanooga Police Department this summer amid a national outcry against police brutality.

The Democrat Socialists' proposals were initially ignored by the council, later being briefly discussed but never formally considered in a council meeting.

Now Byrd, the sole dissenting vote on both readings of the 2021 budget, thinks the council owes it to constituents to at least hear the individual DSA amendments the same way mayoral amendments will be considered.

"We were presented with lots of budget amendments from our constituents and our constituents asked us to look into it, go over it, and some of them had great points and some of them had situations that made sense," Byrd said. "To our constituents, when we hear them talking to us time and time again, it seems like it fell on deaf ears."

Asked by Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod to explain the difference among the sets of amendments, Sullivan said that some amendments are capital, or one-time expenses, and can be paid from existing reserve funding, while operational amendments cannot be budgeted out of reserves because of the uncertainty of revenue in future years.

"It's my memory that y'all did have budget discussions about the [Democratic Socialists'] amendments and y'all then chose to not move forward on those," Sullivan said. "As to our actual amendments, pertaining to the $1.5 million for [the internet funding], that is a one-time expenditure. That can be paid out of reserves."

The mayor's office's wage-related amendments to the budget are both operational.

Budget and Finance Committee Chairwoman Carole Berz told Byrd he was always welcome to bring the amendments to the council and that they would be considered in the same way the mayoral amendments had been.

Democratic Socialists of America Co-Chairwoman Katie Keel said Tuesday night that the organization was aware of Byrd's comments and the new amendments and would be discussing how to handle the hearing at an upcoming meeting.

In anticipation of significant public comment, input for all of the proposed operational and capital amendments has been limited to one 2-hour-maximum hearing. Each speaker will be limited to two minutes. A similar remote hearing on the budget in June lasted around seven hours with hundreds of viewers and attendees.

The public hearing for the budget amendments is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Sept. 15. The first and second votes will take place at the regular 6 p.m. council meetings on Sept. 22 and 29, respectively.

Under an emergency declaration by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, council meetings will continue to take place online through Oct. 28 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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

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