Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's first proposed budget is getting mixed reviews from the public, as vocal constituents support general pay increases but fracture over an increased police budget.
In Kelly's $302 million proposed budget, the new mayor emphasizes increasing city wages, using over $30 million in increased projected property tax revenues to fund pay increases across the board, with significant boosts for the city's public works, fire and police departments.
"I think the overarching thing here is government shouldn't be the caboose on the train of the labor market, right? I mean, we need good people, and you have to compete with the private market to get them," Kelly told the Times Free Press ahead of an August budget presentation. "So that's what this does. This was kind of handed to us, it was one of the things we inherited that we had to fix, but this should fix it."
Kelly's compensation plan includes:
— Increasing the general pay plan for city employees by $10 million, including a new minimum wage of $15 per hour for city employees; pay increases ranging from 5-48%, averaging 18% per employee, with a minimum of 5% (except for those in or above the top 50th percentile, who will receive a 3% increase) and a previously announced 42% increase in starting pay for garbage, recycling and brush pickup drivers.
— $10 million toward fire department pay, bringing the base pay of a fire cadet up 24%, from $32,524 to $40,330.
— $10 million toward police, bringing the base pay of a police cadet up 24%, from $35,141 to $43,575.
For several weeks, city employees ranging from first responders to office workers have flooded council meetings to celebrate the proposed pay increases.
Chattanooga Police Sgt. Andrew Peker told the city council on Tuesday, during the first of two public input sessions on the budget, that turnover in the department was at an all-time high and he believed that low wages were the sole cause.
"Without fail, it's been money. I haven't one time heard that someone was looking to leave because they didn't love Chattanooga and they prefer to live somewhere else. It comes down to the money," Peker said. "These officers can go an hour or two in any direction and make a fair wage, and I don't know how to counter that."
But the new police budget causes concern for those who have called for a reduction or complete revocation of funds for the Chattanooga Police Department for more than a year, since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis spurred police brutality protests across the nation, including in Chattanooga.
Last summer the groups — the Chattanooga Democratic Socialists of America, Concerned Citizens for Justice and I Can't Breathe Chattanooga (which has since dissolved) — led protests, made demands to local elected officials and drafted proposed budget amendments to address policing in the city.
This year, while 25 unfilled positions were cut from the police department, the department's overall budget increased to just shy of $72 million, up by about 4%.
"Many demands were made last summer as a byproduct of protests from native Chattanoogans — Black, white, Latinx, young, old, middle-aged, it does not matter," former protest and I Can't Breathe Chattanooga leader Marie Mott said Tuesday. "We came together as a people because we wanted to see a change in the amount of money that has been allocated overwhelmingly to our police department to be reinvested back into our community."
While the protests are long over, the socialists and the concerned citizens released a joint statement Monday, criticizing the new administration's efforts to address policing through higher pay for police and the creation of a co-response team of 10 social workers to assist the police on certain calls.
"All too often, the city dips their toes in the water of progress and declares themselves washed of all sin when in reality they were desperately urged by the people of Chattanooga for meaningful change," the statement said. "After decades of half-hearted gestures like this and other piecemeal reforms, we have a hard time not seeing proposals such as this as anything more than empty promises meant to keep people satisfied and quiet enough to hold off on another massive uprising until after the next election cycle."
While the groups support alternative response measures, the activists fear that co-response is more for the police than the community.
"If the sole purpose of the crisis response team is to make police more efficient, we do not want them," the statement said. "We want a cure for white supremacy and police violence. We want true alternatives to policing, not another appendix to it."
Joda Thongnopnua, the chief policy officer for the mayor's office, told the Times Free Press on Monday that the co-response will be a measured first step in Kelly's plan to reimagine policing and that the administration hopes to lean on community input in establishing the team.
"We have budgeted for what is a pretty big step in reimagining what public safety looks like in Chattanooga," Thongnopnua said of the nearly $1 million investment in the response team. "From a programmatic standpoint, we're going to be engaging the community to fine-tune exactly what this looks like to make sure that it's tailored for Chattanooga."
Still, Thongnopnua believes the changes included in the proposed 2022 budget will create an impact.
"We have to make sure that this program is going to work for Chattanoogans, and that means making sure that we get it right the first time as opposed to trying to do too much all at once," Thongnopnua added. "That isn't to say that we are being overly cautious, because again we've invested $1 million, and we pulled 25 positions that were budgeted in the police department's budget to make this happen."
The council will vote on the budget at its Sept. 7 and 14 meetings.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.