Chattanooga City Council questions long-term tech, court spending

The Chattanooga City Council has asked whether the amount of money it spends on city court, public works and technology makes financial sense in the long run.

On Tuesday, council members kicked off their monthlong review of Mayor Andy Berke’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, taking a deep dive into spending on core government functions and services outside of public safety. Instead of looking at the budget strictly on a department-by-department basis, the review calls on the council to look at spending from a perspective focused on results — such as economic growth or safer streets.

Results-based budgeting crosses departmental lines and encourages “clear and measurable goals, multi-agency collaboration, best practices, research and evaluation,” Maura Sullivan, Chattanooga’s chief operating officer, told council members.

In the warm-up to the body’s discussion, City Finance Officer Daisy Madison reminded the council the city’s $253 million operations budget needs more money to meet its challenges, including obligations to police and fire department pensions and growing medical costs. At the same time, the city is losing revenues because of decreases in the Hall tax and a 1 percent cut to the sales tax on food, creating a “double whammy.”

“The increasing cost of benefits has steadily outpaced increases in revenues,” Madison said.

Chattanooga City Council highlights

The council voted 9-0 in favor of a sound ordinance to limit noise created by off-road vehicles on residential property. Councilman Chip Henderson, who sponsored the legislation, described the measure as a “missing link” in the Chattanooga’s noise regulations. The council makes the second, and final, vote on the ordinance on Aug. 15.

While the budget proposal calls for shaving a few cents off Chattanooga’s property tax rate, higher tax bills are expected to bring in more revenue because of increased property values. The city calculates it will bring in $149.6 million in property tax revenues in fiscal 2018, about $13 million more than what was projected for 2017. In 2016, property tax revenues amounted to $130.4 million.

In light of a tight budget coupled with growing expenditures, several council members asked if the city could hold the line on spending or get the best value for dollars in certain strategic areas in the future.

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The proposed budget for what the mayor’s office calls “high-performance government,” funds all the city’s decision-making, administrative and infrastructural activities, leaving out emergency responders.

Overall, this spending amounts to $33.7 million, an increase of $6.4 million, or 23.5 percent, over last year. As a percentage of the operations budget, it represents a slight bump. Last year, spending in the high-performance government category took up 11.8 percent of the operations budget, while it moved up to 13.8 percent for the proposed 2018 budget.

The $2.28 million spent on city court judges and judicial support staff drew fire from Councilwoman Carol Berz, who described the city court system as “dysfunctional” since Hamilton County General Sessions Court has assumed a lot of duties previously handled by city courts. She said she was not critical of the city court performance, but believes it is “hampered” by the framework. This represents a $1 million increase over 2017.

Chattanooga’s charter requires a city court, but it does not require two judges, Council Vice Chairman Ken Smith said, adding the city court issue comes up every budget cycle. The city court handles cases such as ordinance violations, parking and traffic violations, and garbage code violations.

“The best way to resolve this is to have a committee determine what we are going to do,” Councilman Chip Henderson, chairman of the council’s Budget and Finance Committee, said.

Berz also questioned an 18 percent increase in Chattanooga’s Department of Information Technology, which went from $6.7 million in 2017 to $7.9 million in 2018.

Much of the growing cost was tied up with ongoing maintenance and subscriptions to software licensing, Madison said. Initially, those costs were rolled out as capital expenses, but upkeep efforts fall under operations.

Berz asked if the costs ever evened out when the city’s technology is “held hostage by providers.”

While she did not see technology investments “escalating at this rate” in the future, neither did she see the costs going down, Madison said.

It’s quite possible the overall increase is masking a number of decreased costs, Smith said.

The Department of Public Works’ administration and engineering pretty much doubled its spending by recently incorporating a large chunk of the dissolved General Services Department, going from $2.5 million in 2017 to $5.2 million in 2018. General service functions include energy and facility maintenance, custodial services and security.

Council Chairman Jerry Mitchell asked if folding general service functions under the public works umbrella would boost efficiency and save money.

It will take a year to determine the savings, Madison said.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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