The passage of Chattanooga's city budget last week sailed in and out the council chambers without a hitch — a pretty remarkable feat given that the $302 million budget gave raises to lots of city employees (especially police), did not defund police (a demand from some in our city) and included a $30 million city property tax increase (something that usually brings screams from the public).
What's more, the city continues to roll out promising ways to help many of its stressed residents — like allocating $500,000 in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to expand the eviction prevention initiative that launched in March under the Andy Berke administration as a pilot program. At its beginning, grants from the Community Foundation paired residents facing eviction with an attorney from Legal Aid of East Tennessee. Data has shown that tenants with legal counsel have a better chance of staying in their homes. During Chattanooga's pilot phase, the initiative helped 177 households avoid eviction, or at least improve the outcome of their legal proceedings. Those households included 182 children.
Seeing as how Mayor Tim Kelly's first budget — complete with tax increase — caught little backlash in the August and September council meetings when it was detailed and passed unanimously on both a first and second reading, we have to ask: Does Kelly, in his first year of office, lead a charmed life?
Maybe. But that's not why we think the budget he introduced at a council meeting on Aug. 10 or the allocation of a half-million dollars in pandemic relief announced Friday garnered few naysayers. Rather, we think hard front-end educational work — the old-fashioned word here is accountability — has thus far made the difference.
Let's back up to June 8 for perspective. The City Council was having an early budget session meeting in the midst of many consecutive nights of protests and marchs after the national outcry against police brutality in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Chattanooga meeting began at 6 p.m. but continued into the wee hours of Wednesday morning as more than 250 Chattanoogans showed up to plead with council members to divest from the Chattanooga Police Department's $71 million budget and to reinvest the money in underrepresented communities and social programs.
"Every speaker proposed reallocating money into Youth and Family Development, public transportation and other community programs," according to a Chattanooga Times Free Press story about that meeting.
While we've consistently said calls to defund police are misguided, we also have consistently called for police reform. We said in August that divesting/reinvesting calls contain an grain of renewed opportunity for that needed reform. Policing money can be better spent — not just here but in many places. And more money — not necessarily policing money but simply more money — should be invested in social and youth programs.
Clearly Kelly and the council heard the community activists' concerns. They took pains not to undermine public safety even as they did find ways to help police do their jobs better and with more compassion.
In addition to police raises (so the city can attract and retain the best officers, not just officers who didn't make the grade somewhere else), the new city budget passed last week also includes:
* $1.2 million to create a crisis response program — an unarmed team of social workers to respond to nonviolent calls for help
* $5 million in public safety capital investments — such as more cameras
* $3.5 million for infrastructure to support economic development — community jobs — in East Chattanooga
* $7 million to "transform" the city's Youth and Family Development Community centers
The budget also creates new offices of community health and of equity and community engagement.
And yes, more ordinary expenditures are there as well, including $10 million for a public works paving program and $1.8 million for sidewalk construction and repair.
You might ask what do social, educational, youth and jobs programs have to do with policing? Pretty much everything. Young people with poor education can't get work. And if they can't get work, what do they do?
As for the social workers — first-term Chattanooga Council member Raquetta Dotley put it well here in July:
"Many 911 calls do not require a police response. In fact, a recent survey of eight cities revealed that 23% to 39% of calls for service were low priority or non-urgent, or not necessitating police presence. Still, we continue to send the police to answer these calls ... wasting precious resources and officer time [and] creating dangerous or even deadly situations for people in crisis who may not be able to communicate clearly or express themselves in a way that won't be read by law enforcement as threatening. ... [P]eople with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than others who come into contact with law enforcement."
We're pleased to see the city of Chattanooga taking these issues to heart — from adding social workers to the toolbelt of police to scaling up a program to prevent evictions. As the old saying goes: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And as another saying puts it: This is money well spent.