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This story was updated at 5:16 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, with more information.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced Tuesday that the city will raise pay for qualified recycling, trash and brush collection drivers by about $14,000, or 45%, in the upcoming budget to address a staff shortage.

Last week, Kelly suspended the city's curbside recycling pickup service due to a shortage of drivers qualified to offer collection services.

"We're currently running our fleet of garbage, brush and recycling pickup trucks with a shortage of 32 drivers," Kelly said at a news conference Tuesday. "Our recycling truck drivers can, of course, drive our garbage trucks, so I made the difficult decision to shift drivers who were on our recycling pickup to garbage trucks in order to ensure orderly and timely collection of garbage, which is required by law, and to maintain brush pickup, given that leaving [brush is a] fire hazard in our hottest months."

Now, Kelly is attempting to address the insufficient pay of drivers that he said led to the shortage.

"I want to be crystal clear, however, about how we found ourselves in this situation. Currently, our starting pay for the equipment operators that drive our recycling trucks is right around $31,000, which is far below the starting salary of many similar positions that require a commercial driver's license," Kelly said. "Even with our good benefits package here at the city, that clearly is not enough to attract qualified drivers in a competitive economy."

Kelly said Tuesday that the fiscal year 2022 budget, which he will present to the city council next week, will include significant pay increases for those drivers, the city's highest tier of commercially licensed drivers, from a little over $31,000 to $45,000 per year.

"While this would have been included in our budget overhaul ... we're increasing starting pay for equipment operators to $45,000 along with city benefits, and a pension," Kelly said. "This is a competitive salary for [commercial driver's license] drivers. So we're hopeful we can fill these positions."

Donald Stone, the city's deputy administrator of public works, said the drivers needed are for the city's highest-level equipment operator positions.

"We have drivers that have different designations. So when we're talking garbage, recycling and brush, these are our top-level drivers that are able to only drive these particular vehicles," Stone said. "We have other drivers that drive other equipment but they don't have the proper endorsements to drive these trucks."

According to the job posting, which is available through the city's website, drivers are required to have a valid class A or B Tennessee license and must be able to obtain a hazardous material endorsement within six months of employment.

The city will seek to hire those positions immediately and retroactively pay them the increased amount after the budget process.

Kelly estimates the recycling collection issue will be resolved within 60 days. In the meantime, city recycling pickup stillclients can use their city bins with Scenic City Recycling and can bring their recycling to the city's recycling centers.

The hindrance to recycling pickup is the first of many anticipated effects to services provided by the Chattanooga Fire Department, Chattanooga Police Department, and Public Works ahead due to staffing shortages, according to Kelly.

"This isn't unique to our drivers. Many of our firefighters and police officers as well as our public works crews are facing similar shortages and pay gaps," Kelly said. "This unfortunately is just the tip of a looming iceberg that we're going to hit if we don't act to get our pay in line with the market."

To prevent any further disruption, Kelly said there will be a "complete overhaul" of the city pay structure in this, his first budget, including significant pay increases for those three departments. But the driver pay increase will likely be the largest.

"I think the driver shortage is the most severe that we've seen," he said. "I'd say the driver increase is probably the most dramatic one you'll see. The others are also fairly substantial. I mean, we are way off the market in many, many job categories."

Asked how he plans to fund the raises, Kelly said there will be some cuts to the previous budget. He also did not rule out a property tax "increase" to maintain the current tax rate, despite a lowered certified tax rate. He did, however, commit to no actual increase.

"It's a little too soon to say, I mean, we're still working through the final details of the budget," he said of a tax increase.

"Obviously, as you know, by law, we have to equalize the rate and drop the rate," he said of the city's certified tax rate which went from about 2.28 to 1.85 during this year's property reappraisal. "I think I can commit to saying that [old] rate will not increase."

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

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