OPINION: What's in Chattanooga's crystal ball for 2023? We have predictions

·4 min read

Jan. 1—This is the time of year when everyone begins looking for a crystal ball. Or a Ouija board. Or both.

What will happen with COVID-19? What will the next variant look like? When will our lawmakers come to their senses and repeal the omnibus COVID-19 mandates against mandates and other ridiculous measures, like trying to forbid the state medical board from disciplining doctors spewing virus misinformation and snake oil?

Well — here's one prediction we feel safe in making:

— Our supermajority Republican Tennessee Assembly lawmakers won't get any smarter. Or more responsible. That's a gimme. Hang your hat on it.

We have more faith, for now, in Chattanooga government. This was, after all, the city administration, under Mayor Tim Kelly, that offered cash incentives to workers and raffle winnings even to non-city employees who received early vaccinations.

And it's the administration that got off the dime and budgeted police pay raises to help us keep the best and brightest officers.

And it was this administration that finally hired a dedicated public works administrator (Tom Hutka, a Princeton and Harvard educated civil engineer and public administrator with more than three decades of experience serving in local government — most recently in Broward County, Florida, where he was the director of public works in a jurisdiction with nearly two million residents.)

That said, here's another prediction:

— This — and the billions of dollars in new federal American Rescue Plan Act funds on the table for local infrastructure grants — will make it a bit more likely we'll finally have some transformational water, sewer, transportation, education and equity infrastructure breakthroughs here in our city. (Yes, equity. Read on.) Perhaps in the county, too, since water, storm runoff, roads and buses don't stop at the city limits.

Last week, Chattanooga city officials extended until Feb. 4 the city's previously announced Jan. 6 deadline for community members and nonprofit organizations to apply for funding awarded through the city's allotment of federal American Rescue Plan dollars.

This is not chicken feed. The Biden administration's American Rescue Plan — passed without one single Republican politician's vote — provides a lot of money to help communities like Chattanooga emerge stronger from the still-raging pandemic.

Chattanooga received $19.3 million in ARP dollars in 2021 and is expected to receive roughly the same amount in 2022. We'll do the math for you: That's about $38.6 million to be spent right here in our city — $38.6 million that we didn't have, hadn't raised, hadn't even argued about raising.

This brings us to prediction No. 3 — which we've actually already made on this page a couple of times before:

— Those GOP "no" votes won't keep Republican politicians from city, county, state or federal levels from grinning at cameras beneath their never-dirty hard hats to try taking credit for building one or another or all of the infrastructure achievements this money brings. Let's all make a point of calling them out on it.

We should also make a point to help shape the plans for spending these dollars.

In Chattanooga, Kelly opened the aforementioned application process for "proposals from Chattanooga residents, nonprofit organizations, philanthropic institutions, and the broader community," according to a city web page: recovery.chattanooga.gov.

That includes an equity-in-spending advisory group — our title, not Kelly's.

"Building on the Mayor's commitment to integrating an equity lens throughout city government, Mayor Kelly announced that, in partnership with The Urban League and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the City will charter a 12-member Equitable Recovery Commission, an advisory group composed of community members and leaders who will help coordinate the City's recovery efforts across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors," according to the web page.

Once assembled, the commission will meet over the next several months "to advise the mayor on investment priorities, process and structure with the intention of maximizing the long-term benefit of Chattanooga's residents."

A separate news release from the city states Chattanooga's "investment" (read here, spending of that money) will be guided both by federal rules and by Kelly's "One Chattanooga" strategic framework and visioning document.

That document lists seven focus goals: build a universal path to early learning, catalyze economic vitality in the Black community, ensure accessible housing choices for all Chattanoogans, improve local infrastructure, build a competitive regional economy, close the gaps in public health, provide responsive and effective local government.

"We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make investments that will bridge the gap between the two Chattanoogas, fixing the structural issues in our community that for too long have held our city back from fulfilling the promise of its potential," Kelly was quoted in the statement. "I urge our residents to continue to think big as we review your ideas for how to lift up our most vulnerable residents and build a city that works for everyone."

Here's today's final prediction, with a caveat:

— If Kelly can stick to this, and if Chattanoogans can indeed think big, this city could have the best and most transformational recovery in the country.

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