Mental health services, youth and family resources and workforce development top the list of community budget concerns in Chattanooga in preparation for the budget year that will start July 1, bumping once-dominant infrastructure concerns.
The city's effort to budget with an eye toward positive outcomes includes extensive public input and review to ensure that spending matches the public's priorities in five areas: high performing government; stronger neighborhoods; safer streets; smarter students, stronger families and a growing economy.
To determine top priorities in the past seven years under Mayor Andy Berke, the city has done a combination of in-person public meetings and online surveys.
This year, the city used Zoom sessions, online surveys and analysis of 18,827 social media interactions regarding the city budget to determine priorities for the budget, which will be largely formed by the Berke administration but ultimately fall under the new mayor, to be elected in March.
"A year ago, as we were going through this process, there were a lot of things that were really going right. We saw a tremendous amount of growth and positive movement," Berke said at a news conference Friday, citing national attention Chattanooga received for its growth before the pandemic.
"In the last year, we've seen tremendous struggle and difficulty."
The budget input for this year shows a heightened concern for social and economic assistance, reflecting on the stressful events of 2020, according to Berke.
"As our economy struggles to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, Chattanoogans want to see the smartest possible use of their tax dollars," Berke said in a statement. "That begins with making the most strategic investments possible: assisting families in crisis, making sure people can get employed and stay employed and helping our youth thrive. If our government continues to support initiatives that deliver on these outcomes, we know the long term value — and cost savings — are tremendous."
Last year, each of the city's nine districts rated paving and roads as the top priority in a study by the city and named road quality, traffic and economic opportunity as primary themes at input meetings.
This year, the districts each had different top priorities, ranging from COVID-19 economic assistance and affordable housing to improved policing practices and mental health resources.
The top two themes by district are:
— District 1
According to the report by the city, public input from residents of District 1 indicated the primary concern was the need for eviction protection, mortgage relief and increased housing stock.
The district's secondary concerns were improving community policing and transferring police resources to mental health crisis services.
— District 2
The report indicated that District 2's primary concern was increasing investment in education from early childhood through high school.
The district's secondary concerns were increasing opportunities for employment and higher-wage jobs.
— District 3
In District 3, the input report shows increasing opportunities for employment as the No. 1 priority.
The district's secondary concern was investing in public education.
— District 4
According to the report, District 4 residents named increasing funding for mental health facilities and not using ambulances to transport mental health-related patients as their primary concerns.
Homelessness and affordable housing were the secondary theme in the district.
— District 5
Investing in employment programs and recruiting higher-paying jobs were the top priorities of District 5 residents, according to the report.
Increasing education funding and resources was second.
— District 6
District 6 residents named increasing business development, supporting small businesses and creating more employment opportunities as top priorities.
Using community policing for crime prevention was the district's secondary concern.
— District 7
Residents of District 7 prioritized investment in community-based efforts to reduce crime and the effects of mental health crises.
The secondary priority was increasing resources for people experiencing homelessness.
— District 8
Supporting people experiencing homelessness was the top concern of District 8 residents.
Providing more affordable housing was their secondary priority.
— District 9
Increasing trust between the police and the community was the primary concern of District 9 residents.
Investing in creating better job opportunities was second in the district.