Cooper: Berke and the big issues

Cooper: Berke and the big issues

April 20th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Mayor Andy Berke delivers his State of the City address at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

All Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke wants to do this year is tackle climate change, homelessness, economic mobility and school safety. Once he solves those, we wonder what he'll do next.

He did, in fact, use his State of the City address at the Chattanooga Convention Center Thursday night to address the four topics, pegging them to how they've changed here since 1969, when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite is said to have mentioned the city in a broadcast as having the dirtiest air in the country.

Berke is not likely to solve any of them by this time next year, but he believes the city needs to take the steps it can to address those four serious issues.

Two of those, homelessness and school safety (and education in general), have significant budget implications.

Berke in December, based on recommendations from the Chattanooga Interagency Council on Homelessness, released the Chattanooga Community Action Plan. A four-year blueprint, it suggested four steps from homelessness to housing for a local population that is said to be 2,000 adults and 600 children at any given time.

At the time, he believed a success rate of 85 percent was possible.

Although Berke said then the implementation of the plan would be by the Interagency Council on Homelessness and not the city, he said the city would fund housing navigators and other managers and coordinators who would help homeless individuals get into homes and help them stay there.

Some of those positions will be in his fiscal 2020 budget, he said, some transitioning from the work his administration did in being certified as having ended veteran homelessness.

We applauded the new plan in December and hope it begins to see fruit as one of the mayor's four priorities.

Berke, in being the mayor of a city whose public schools are run by the county, has little direct oversight of individual schools within city limits.

But that doesn't lessen his concern, like the concern of other parents and involved community members around the country, for the quality of their education and their safety in an ever more volatile world.

Berke said during his 2018 State of the City address he would add 1,000 slots for high-quality early learning — the critical time for children before kindergarten — before he leaves office in 2021. In his address a year later, he said 365 of those slots had been secured.

He also is instituting two programs involving schools and the Chattanooga Police Department (CPD). One of those will give every school in the city a CPD liaison. The other will ensure that a CPD official contacts the school on behalf of a student or students when police have been called to their home the night before.

Currently, the city and county supply school resource officers in most every middle and high school. Although some of the school resource officers may become those schools' liaisons, the liaisons are not intended to be school resource officers. But they are to be specific contacts for the schools on matters of safety.

Meanwhile, the other program — called Handle With Care — will simply remind teachers to be aware of any behavior that may occur in their student or students because of an adverse experience that had happened in their home and for which police had to be called.

"Children come to school with not just backpacks but with a host of problems these days," Berke told Times Free Press editors and reporters.

We appreciate the implications of the two safety programs and hope the logistics of implementation don't keep them from becoming a reality.

Berke, concerning economic mobility, noted that 50 years ago it was assumed most children would do better economically than their parents. Today, he said, that "American Dream" is not the case.

And while he alone can't improve the economic situation for individual families who need it, he said he could assemble a coalition of people to encourage changes such as minimum-wage policies for states and municipalities, the proliferation of jobs in industries (such as health care) that allow economic mobility, and the need for obtaining post-secondary certifications (or degrees) to increase economic mobility.

By doing those things, Berke said, maybe a "new Chattanooga Dream" could occur.

Similarly with climate change, the mayor won't be able to halt or lessen fires, floods and tornadoes that hit the area, but he said it only make sense to create — as is in the planning stage — a regional resiliency council of area mayors and commissioners to deal with what may occur, and what occurs, in a proactive way.

Emergency response, disaster preparedness, business support and smart development are some of the ways in which such a group could work together, he said.

No matter your opinion about climate change, we don't believe there is a downside for being better equipped regionally to handle whatever comes our way.

Berke often has been mentioned as a candidate for higher office, and speaking of climate change, economic mobility and homelessness sounds like a candidate for higher office. But whether that is in his future, doing what he can locally to deal with such issues — plus keeping an eye on everyday problems like crime, potholes and garbage service — is not ambitious but just smart.

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