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OPINION: Berke has been an effective mayor in ways that are big and small

Chattanooga Times Free Press - 1/29/2021

Jan. 28—If you ask random Chattanoogans what general impact Mayor Andy Berke has made on the city after eight years in office, they may have trouble offering a quick answer.

However, if you ask thousands of individual city residents who have been touched by some service, assistance or project, they'd have a ready reply. — "There's a new park I go to." — "My street got paved." — "I can now be online for school during the pandemic." — "The city found me housing." — "I was able to go to the Family Justice Center when I needed it." — "There are fewer gang shootings."

The term-limited Berke, in a Zoom conference earlier this week with Times Free Press editors and writers, said his goal as mayor was to "break down the barriers that keep people from living the life they want in Chattanooga."

That goal, while noble, is not likely to etch his name on a future bridge or bring it to mind when the renaissance of a particular area of the city is mentioned.

More than a president, governor or congressman, though, a mayor is more likely to affect the everyday lives of the citizens he or she represents.

And that's what Berke, who will leave office in April, has done well in ways big and small.

Indeed, many Chattanoogans may never realize that making changes to the fire and police pension fund early in his tenure saved the city an estimated $227 million over 20 years ("and probably more," he says). And many may never know what savings they will realize through the city's addition of a solar power array to the Moccasin Bend Treatment Plant, or have realized through the 2017 senior citizen property tax freeze or the 2018 senior citizen water quality bill reimbursement.

On the other hand, some city residents will be able to point to tangible projects that were completed, including the revamped Miller Park, the new Youth and Family Development Center in Avondale, the refurbished East Lake Park or the new Southside Park.

Although the city is not in the school business anymore, Berke also understood the critical need for children to be ready for school and what happens if they're not. As such, his administration began Baby University to provide voluntary case management, mentoring and support for expectant mothers and families; pushed for 1,000 new early learning center "seats"; and provided early learning scholarships for families to be able to fill some of those seats.

And, as recently as the early months of the pandemic last summer, he was able to help engineer a deal with EPB that provides online connectivity for many lower-income homes with students who need such connectivity to attend school.

Berke was fortunate to be mayor in a growing economy during his first seven years in office. He sought to expand that workforce by taking advantage of Chattanooga's Gig City reputation with the creation of the Innovation District for entrepreneurs and by bringing in Nippon to potentially employ some of the neighborhood's residents in a manufacturing plant at the former Tubman housing project site.

While the city found its way onto numerous "Best Places To ..." lists during the mayor's tenure, it also landed on several other lists for its crime rate.

As such, Berke determined to get a handle on the city's growing gang violence by adopting a ballyhooed Violence Reduction Initiative. While opinions will differ as to the success of the effort, gang shootings dropped from around 73 when he entered office in 2013 to an average of 26 in the last three years.

In the meantime, the police department was reorganized, gun and gang units were started, more focus was put on victims, internal reforms were adopted and relationships were broadened with the community. Some crime number remain too high, the mayor acknowledged, but he said what was done is a testament to what can be done "with real focus and determination."

While much of Berke's tenure has seen the city grow and thrive, he's also shepherded it through a terrorist attack, a three-day water outage, a tornado, Black Lives Matter protests and a global pandemic — the last four of those since September 2019.

"Through it all," he said, "Chattanooga has figured out ways to write the next chapter."

Some individual city residents, like those who praise Berke, will have specific reasons they don't believed he fared well in the office. Their street didn't get paved (and there are a lot that need it). They hate the new Miller Park. They don't think he sought enough affordable housing. Or he dabbled too much in social justice.

Certainly, we would say he fulfilled his goal of breaking down barriers that would prevent residents from having more "power and control" over aspects of their lives. That's an admirable goal for any administration, a conservative one at that, though the mayor — a Democrat in a nonpartisan position — might not see it that way.

Nevertheless, we feel Berke is leaving the city — minus the coronavirus — better than he found it. It would be a worthy goal for the next mayor to be able to say at the end of his or her term.


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