Chattanooga residents had a chance to tell city officials how to spend more than $200 million dollars. That’s how much the city is expected to budget for fiscal year 2019.
Recently, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke invited ordinary citizens to sit at tables with officials, pens and paper in hand, and help decide who gets a slice of the $200 million dollar pie.
BERKE: TONIGHT, WE ARE ASKING CITIZENS FOR THEIR INPUT INTO THE BUDGET, WE WANT TO KNOW HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT THE THINGS THAT ARE HAPPENING IN THE CITY, HOW WE CAN MAKE PROGRESS ON THE PROBLEMS, AND WHAT WE SHOULD BE DOING NEXT YEAR.
That’s Berke at the first of three Citizen Budget Input Sessions.
The first happened November 20th, at the Kingdom Center on MLK boulevard. A crowd showed up to brainstorm ideas about making streets / safer and neighborhoods stronger. Even though few us of know the intricacies of revenue for road repair, or the fine points of police pensions… we’re all experts on the issues, according to Berke.
BERKE: THE PEOPLE WHO ARE HERE TONIGHT KNOW WHAT THE PROBLEMS ARE THAT FACE OUR CITY. AND IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT ENSURING THEY KNOW WHAT WE SHOULD DO. IT’S ABOUT KNOWING WHAT THE PRIORITIES ARE.
The crowd split up into discussion groups… about six people at each table, a mix of city employees and residents. Seth Miller is with the Chattanooga Fire Department, he’s the Administrative Deputy Chief. He took charge at one table and handed out Sharpies and Post-It Notes.
MILLER: SO REAL QUICKLY, WHAT WE’RE GONNA DO IS GO AROUND, I JUST WANT YOU TO SAY YOUR FIRST NAME AND WHERE YOU’RE FROM. ALRIGHT?
CLARK: I’M TIA, I’M FROM DALEWOOD. :03
Tia Taylor Clark is a grandmother who volunteers at her grandson’s school, and education is one of her concerns. On Post-It Note, she wrote an idea…. CLASSES FOR PARENTS… MANDATORY. She suggested the city fund something like that in the 2019 budget, so parents can stay informed.
CLARK: THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT THE TEACHERS GO THROUGH, THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT THEIR KIDS ARE DOING. BUT I THINK IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT FOR THEM TO SEE WHAT THESE TEACHERS HAVE TO GO THROUGH WHEN THEY’RE DEALING WITH ALL THESE DIFFERENT PERSONALITIES FROM THESE DIFFERENT CHILDREN. BECAUSE IT REALLY IS A LOT!
At the end of the evening, Mayor Berke emphasized the importance of conversations like this…
BERKE: THAT’S WHAT MAKES OUR LOCAL GOVERNMENT SO SPECIAL IS OUR RELATIONSHIP THAT WE HAVE WITH YOU. THANK YOU FOR COMING OUT TONIGHT…
The city hosted two more Citizen Budget Input meetings after that. One a few nights later, in Hixson. Then the final one on November 30th in Brainerd, where Eastlake resident Edward Curtis pounded his fist on a table to make a point about the local economy….
CURTIS: (hitting table) THE PAY HERE IS SO LOW… YEAH YOU NEED TO INCREASE WAGES, YEAH, THE EARNING POWER HERE.
SULLIVAN (USING MICROPHONE): LET’S DO TABLE TWO, TABLE TWO, DOES SOMEONE FROM TABLE TWO WANT TO COME UP TO THE MIC?
At the urging of Maura Black Sullivan, the city’s Chief Operating Officer, various people stood and shared their priorities.
WOMAN: SUPPORT AFFORDABLE HOUSING DOWNTOWN…
MAN: MORE VOCATIONAL TRAINING, INCREASE OUR TEST SCORES…
WOMAN: MORE COMMUNITY FEELING BY CREATING MORE GREENSPACES IN THE COMMUNITIES….
Participants’ written ideas will be taken to officials, and typed into a spreadsheet, to help inform funding priorities in fiscal year 2019. This is a fairly new approach for the city. Something that started during Berke’s administration.
The yearly budget used to be determined just by looking at numbers… how much a department was allocated in previous years… how much might be needed in the future… an administrative process, behind closed doors.
This NEW approach is called Budgeting for Outcomes. It’s not only about open meetings… its also about accountability. Those who receive funds have to demonstrate they’re using the money effectively.
MADISON: THE PEOPLE ARE REQUIRED TO REPORT ON THE ACHIEVEMENT OF THE BENCHMARKS THAT THEY SAID THEY WOULD REACH.
That’s Daisy Madison, the city’s Chief Financial Officer. This new approach puts a smile on her face.
MADISON: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE NUMBERS, IT’S MUCH MORE ABOUT THE OUTCOME, AND I LOVE IT.
Next year, a different group of locals will weigh in what Chattanooga should fund… the city council will start debating this budget in the summer.