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Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd/ With the economic challenges from the COVID-19 virus during his last year in office, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke nevertheless hopes to leave the city for his successor in a good financial position.

The city Andy Berke inherited as mayor in April 2013 was one that had weathered the Great Recession better than most, according to experts.

It was, according to a NerdWallet list that year, sixth in the nation — based on labor and housing market data through 2012 — among cities that had improved most from the recession.

From 2009 to 2012, median home value grew 14.04%, median household income grew 13.43% and, according to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, gross retail sales in the county increased.

Three years earlier, in March 2010, Moody's Economy.com placed the city among the nearly half in the country that already had bottomed out from the recession and were recovering. Atlanta, Nashville and Knoxville, at the time, still were thought to be in recession.

"Overall," Alex Miron, associate economist for Moody's Economy, said at the time, "Chattanooga has experienced a much smaller decline in employment than at the national level, so with all of the development now going on in the area, it wasn't surprising to see [it] emerge from the recession."

Berke hopes the city he hands off to his successor in less than a year will be able to boast the same thing about weathering the fallout of stay-at-home orders from the coronavirus pandemic.

For the circumstances, he said, "the city is in an extremely strong financial position."

It is with the future in mind that Berke presented his 2021 $225 million operating budget this week. It included hiring and pay freezes and no new taxes, fees or layoffs. Some 221 positions, about 7.6% of the city's 2,900 full- and part-time workforce, already were vacant. The administration also will be absorbing any higher health insurance or pension costs for its employees.

"We'll all will be doing more with less," he said.

And while Berke said the city will continue to invest in infrastructure — replacing Fire Hall 15 and not reducing the city's largest-ever commitment of non-emergency funds for paving, for instance — he said the city would have to "reduce the capital budget on what we were planning to do."

However, the demand for services never decreases. Although the city is likely to lose about $8.4 million in revenue this year resulting from the economic blow of stay-at-home orders, it received more than 36,000 requests for service at its 211 call center since March 1.

Many of those may have been related to damage from the late-night April 12 tornado, for which the city already has spent more than $12.6 million.

And Berke said the $2.5 million the city provided in late March for small business assistance due to closings related to the virus was quickly spoken for. More than 700 businesses reached out for help, he said.

For his final year in office, he said, the city's goals will be to provide the highest level of service to constituents, to do everything possible not to lay off employees and to prioritize actions that would put the city in the "best possible light" going forward.

Berke said the city is prepared to do that because of previous financial strategies. Among those, he said, was increasing the city's reserve fund from $40 million when the Great Recession hit in 2008 to $72 million this year. In addition, he said, the city was conservative for fiscal 2020, increasing its budget only 1% over fears of a recession that never materialized on its own.

Indeed, as 2019 closed, the city appeared to be prepared for continued success. During the year, it had seen an unemployment rate of 2.8%, the lowest for Chattanooga over the four decades that records have been kept. And the city was predicted to be one of the top markets for real estate sales in the country in 2020.

The city for at least the short-term future unquestionably will be "challenged," Berke said, "but a lot of other cities are hurting worse than us."

The financial picture will be even a little better if the city is able to reap some of the money given to the state through the CARES Act pushed through Congress after the stay-at-home orders, he said. The city has not seen any of that money yet, though at least $1.25 billion was sent to all states to be shared.

"I don't know that we're not going to get it," Berke said.

He also hopes Congress passes another virus bill with money for cities and counties. One such bill, the HEROES Act, already passed the Democrat-controlled House but was so loaded down with irresponsible spending that it has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate. Yet, many Republican members of the Senate acknowledge the need for additional money for cities and counties.

"It would make a huge difference," Berke said.

Whatever or if additional money comes, the roaring economy during the mayor's second term and his administration's care of city finances during his tenure have put Chattanooga in an enviable position, relative to the virus. Residents — and the next mayor — should be grateful.

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