Roughly one month after first being unveiled, Chattanooga City Council members voted Tuesday to unanimously approve Mayor Andy Berke's $212 million budget proposal to fund city operations for the next fiscal year.
The group's vote came after meetings of scrutinizing questions on Berke's intended outcomes and wrangling over funding for items such as paving of city roads. Under Berke's plan, the city will hire 40 additional police officers and grant a 1.5 percent pay increase for the entirety of city workers.
The budget includes no property tax increase but does allow for a 9.5 percent rise in sewer fees to accommodate aspects of the city's ongoing efforts to meet a $250 million federal consent decree to overhaul its aging sewer system.
Before the group approved the plan, Councilwoman Carol Berz, who chairs the council's Budget Committee, set a motion to begin the process "with great pleasure."
The group also unanimously voted to approve changes to a city ordinance laying out guidelines for special gathering permits. The changes were proposed by Berke last week in response to an ongoing pattern of violence and killings that have occurred at or near unregulated event halls in the city.
Before voting, members of the council were briefed on the proposed changes by Berke's Chief of Staff Travis McDonough. McDonough said he hoped the ordinance would provide clear guidelines for event hall operation and consequences for violations, along with providing "real teeth" to law enforcement officers who might otherwise be caught in a gray area rife with loopholes.
"What we see is a space between regulatory schemes and what is claimed to be going on at event halls," McDonough said. "Owners and operators have a claim that they're not being subjected to any regulatory scheme."
McDonough said that under the current structure event hall owners and operators had "no lasting consequences" if their facilities became host to recurrent bad behavior, criminal activities or general unsafety.
"Tonight, we can remedy that in a way that's fair to all businesses," McDonough said.
Under the new ordinance, owners and operators of event halls will be required to obtain permits from the city for gatherings that go after midnight, where attendees are asked to pay admission, where there is beer or liquor on the premises but no license is present, and when 50 or more people are in attendance. McDonough said the ordinance as written would not affect law-abiding restaurants; bars; or already-existing, upstanding event halls; adding that it would not affect general "weddings or Super Bowl parties."
"We will know who the promoters are and whether they have violated the ordinance recently," he said. "Owners and operators will have a strong incentive to rent their locations to only reputable promoters."
If an event hall or facility is found to be in violation of the ordinance two times in a 12-month period, its permit will be terminated and it will not be allowed to renew its permit for one year from the date of the second violation, McDonough said.
Council members had few questions on the changes. Councilman Moses Freeman, who chairs the group's Public Safety Committee and also played a role in writing the ordinance, said those involved in drafting the proposal had spent considerable time ensuring it was fair and would be administered to enhance safety.
"This was no easy chore," he said. "There were a lot of things to consider and to give serious thought to. The goal was not to just pass a law but to bring quiet and peace to neighborhoods, to ensure safety to citizens in their neighborhoods and on their streets."
The group will vote on the second and final reading of the ordinance next week.
Sign up for our email list to get your morning news delivered directly to your inbox. All we need is your email address.