Month: June 2016

Budget & Finance Committee Working Session on the Operating Budget

Yesterday, the Council’s Budget & Finance Committee had a working session to consider the “Wish List” items proposed by various Council members for the operating budget.  All Council members were invited, and I think the video should be available online.

Just before the meeting, we were handed a brief summary of the changes requested by different members of the Council. As I write this, I don’t think that summary document is online anywhere. You’ll have to pardon my notes, but here’s my copy of the summary.  It is worth noting that the total price tag on everything being requested by the Council for the operating budget would come to about $2,000,000.  If all of it were to be included, it would represent approximately a 0.1% increase in the Mayor’s proposed $2 billion operating budget.

The format for the meeting was for the Council member proposing a change to briefly present what they wanted to change in the operating budget and to also propose a funding source. Then other Council members could comment. There was not very much debate, and there were no votes taken.

At the meeting, we were told that Chair Pridemore and the Metro Finance Director (possibly with others from Metro Finance and the Council’s staff??) would meet between now and Friday to formulate a substitute budget, that the substitute budget would be circulated to Council members on Friday, and that any proposed amendments to the substitute budget will be due by noon next Monday in advance of the Tuesday Council meeting.

As this is my first Metro budget process, I am still learning the process. I am curious to see what, if any, changes come in the substitute budget.

 

Flood Wall Planning in CIB

This evening, the Council considered the Mayor’s Capital Improvements Budget (CIB). I proposed an amendment to delete the $110 million flood wall from the CIB. I mentioned yesterday that:

There was a significant public discussion about this last year, and there has been none this year.  I think there should be some public discussion about this project. That’s why I filed the amendment.

I’m glad I filed the amendment. I think most people didn’t realize that the nine figure flood wall was placed back in the CIB this year. For example, even the Business Journal’s coverage started with noting that “The proposal for a downtown flood wall…may not be so dead after all.” And multiple Council members commented today that they hadn’t realized the flood wall was back in the CIB this year.

At the Council’s Budget & Finance Committee meeting today, the discussion about the flood wall project lasted about 90 minutes. One very important thing we learned is that this project would be fully approved for spending if it were included in the CIB.

Unlike projects funded by General Obligation Bonds where the Council must separately authorize Metro to borrow money for the project, the flood wall (which would be built using Water Services Revenue Bonds) could be built immediately once approved to be in the CIB. You need a degree in Charter-ology to fully understand the details – but the bottom line is that approving the flood wall in the CIB would authorize the entire project without further action of the Council.

It was also clear that there were many Council members who support the project, and many Council members who feel that it has not been adequately vetted yet. My sense was that, if the Council were to vote straight up or down on including the full $110 million flood wall in the CIB, it would have been a close vote. It would have been all or nothing – either kill it again for another year, or allow it to proceed in full without any further input from the Council.

I felt that playing an all-or-nothing hand with such a large infrastructure project would not be the responsible thing to do. CM John Cooper suggested a compromise. The idea was to amend my proposed amendment to allow an incremental step in the project — to include $15 million only in the CIB for design, planning, and countywide community involvement. This compromise approach passed the full Council with 3 no votes. This will let design work and the countywide community engagement process move forward, but not allow any part of the project to be built without further approval by the Council.

I am being careful to tell everyone know that, when I brought this up, it was because I wanted a public discussion – I hadn’t made up my mind about the value of the entire project. And, after 90 minutes of debate today and us approving taking the next step, I am at that same place. I’ll participate in the countywide public engagement part of the process and decide along with the rest of the county about the merits of the proposed flood wall.

Also, Joey Garrison did a great job of summarizing the details of the Council debate today.

 

 

Was the Joint Statement Real?

When the Mayor and the Sheriff issued their Joint Statement on June 7, 2016, it was immediately before the Council meeting that evening. In the statement, they urged the Council to support both the new downtown jail and the proposed new administrative center for the Sheriff’s Office. Some of the comments I heard from my colleagues that evening and from others since then wondered whether there was a genuine détente between the Mayor and the Sheriff, or if the joint statement was a superficial cover on a still-smoldering dispute.

Since then, I have talked at length with the Sheriff and with Mayor’s office personnel. I wanted to reach my own conclusion about this question. The short answer is that I think there is a new, positive level of communication and cooperation between the Sheriff and the Mayor.

For background, I previously have proposed two amendments to the capital spending plan – one would remove $20 million for the new downtown Criminal Justice Center, and the other would remove $20 million for a new Sheriff’s Office administrative center. I have written about this here, here, and here.

I have said that the goal of my two proposed amendments would be to address the disagreement between Sheriff and the Mayor. I said:

The citizens of Nashville should demand that the Sheriff be on the same page as the Mayor before we spend another $40 million. The citizens of Nashville don’t want to toss a $40 million log onto a blazing political fire; they deserve better. When everyone is on the same page, the money can be appropriated then.

More about my goals

I am not opposed to these two projects. I only am opposed to the projects if they are going to happen in the context of a Sheriff and Mayor who aren’t speaking to one another. I believe that dysfunction would lead to a dysfunctional downtown jail.

My starting place is that Nashville (all of us collectively) botched the process of planning a location for a new jail. How that happened might be worth talking about some other day. But for purposes of building a new jail now, what’s done is done. The only options in the universe are to (a) completely halt the process, wait a few years, and start over again; (b) keep going with the current process and build a new dysfunctional downtown jail; and (c) keep going with the current process and build a new functional downtown jail.

I don’t think completely stopping the process and waiting a few years to reboot the project is doable. I think the current CJC is a potential significant liability risk and needs to be replaced.  That leaves two choices – build a functional downtown jail, or build a dysfunctional downtown jail.

I choose having a functional downtown jail as my first choice. Stopping the process and rebooting it a few years from now would be deeply flawed; but it would be my second choice. A dysfunctional jail build by a dysfunctional team would be the worst choice.

I proposed my capital spending plan amendments to help me figure whether a functional team was possible.

The Sheriff and Mayor’s Office

I met with Sheriff Hall for about 90 minutes on June 10. He knows that I will be writing this blog post. He has given me permission to repeat the things that I am repeating here.

He told me that he had a good meeting with the Mayor and that he felt that they would be able to work together going forward.

Sheriff Hall was clear that he is 100% in favor of building a new jail downtown on the site of the current CJC. I want to be clear, and I think Sheriff does too, that he still thinks that the Southeast location would have been a better choice for all of Nashville. But in his words, he has moved on.

The new downtown building will have a jail and also will contain other non-Sheriff’s Office functions. The design is ongoing and the exact make-up of the non-Sheriff’s Office functions has not been fully decided. Sheriff Hall was clear with me that he and his team are satisfied with the design of the jail portion of the new building – this is what they care most about. He acknowledges that his team remains very interested to know what other functions will be placed by Metro around the jail portion of the new building. He acknowledges that the overall plans, design, parking facilities, and costs are Metro’s responsibilities and obligations, and not the Sheriff’s.

For my goal to make sure that Nashville ends up with a fully functional and suitable downtown jail, the most important thing is that the Sheriff and his team are satisfied with the design of the jail portion of the building. I was also happy to hear that, despite their discomfort with not being able to fully control what other services will occupy the building or the cost or the overall design, Sheriff Hall told me he is confident that the jail will be suitable for Nashville.

We discussed consolidating all of the Sheriff’s Office administrative functions in one place. He told me that he and the Mayor both agreed that there should be a healthy public engagement process. He told me that he will consider any potential location for a new administrative center so long as the distance is not too far from the jails.

In the Tennessean on June 7, I was quoted as saying that I had “been unable to get the same story from both sides on the project’s planning process.” After talking to the Sheriff, I wanted to see if this had changed. I am happy to say that the Mayor’s Office has confirmed what Sheriff Hall shared with me about the jail and the administrative center.

There are many citizens and Councilmembers who have been asking these questions. I give the Mayor and the Sheriff credit for being able to work through their differences for the good of Nashville.

Where to go from here?

The bottom line is that Sheriff Hall is now confident in the design process for the new jail, and both the Mayor’s Office and the Sheriff are on the same page about all of these issues. That is what I needed to know to be in favor of appropriating money in the capital spending plan for the new CJC and for a new Sheriff’s Office administrative center.

The other concern I have is that Metro be transparent about the total project cost for the new downtown jail. This would include the cost of moving prisoners, the cost of beefing up security at facilities that will house prisoners during construction, the costs of renting extra buses during construction, and – well, everything related to the project. Metro Finance has committed to provide that information to the Council.

With the two main players – the Sheriff and the Mayor – and their teams pulling in the same direction, Nashville should get the best jail and administrative center possible. And I appreciate their commitment to add a layer of transparency that will allow everyone to easily understand the total project costs.

I want to add a quick note to my friends who are deeply opposed to these projects and who have lost trust in the process and some of the elected officials involved: My sense is that to push any harder to slow down the jail or the administrative center would create a significant risk of cratering the projects. I just don’t think that would be a good idea given the new level of cooperation. As I mentioned, since the Sheriff and the Mayor are on the same page about jail design issues and the process for the administrative center, and we will all be able to have visibility into the total project costs, then I am going to support the projects. After balancing everything, I think that’s what is best for the city.

 

Capital Improvements Budget Up Tomorrow

On June 14, 2016, the Council will consider the proposed Capital Improvements Budget (CIB). The proposed CIB is here, and proposed CIB ordinance is here.

The Council’s Office just posted the amendments that have been proposed by Councilmembers. I have proposed two amendments that would delete items from the CIB. Neither is related to my suggestion last week to delete items from the Capital Spending Plan.

One of my proposed amendments to the CIB would be to remove the $110 million flood wall that was removed from last year’s CIB. I never really understood the project last year. To me, if you build a wall on part of one side of a river, if it works, it means you are flooding another part of town. There was a significant public discussion about this last year, and there has been none this year.

I think there should be some public discussion about this project. That’s why I filed the amendment.

(I pulled the vote on this from last year – for Council members who were in office a year ago, 5 voted to remove the flood wall from the CIB, 7 to keep it in, and 1 abstained.)

My other proposed amendment would remove a duplicate entry from the CIB. There are two entries in the CIB to build a new Sheriff’s Office headquarters (17GS0018 and 17SO0001). This amendment deletes one of the duplicate entries. Both Metro Finance and the Sheriff have told me that they are okay with deleting the duplicate.

 

Mayor-Sheriff Joint Statement Issued Today

The Mayor and the Sheriff met today over lunch and issued a joint statement about the Criminal Justice Center project. You can read their statement here.

I am glad that they met today and agreed on a statement. I look forward to talking to the Mayor’s Office and the Sheriff about how the design process for the new downtown jail will work moving forward.

About the two Capital Spending Plan amendments that I discussed yesterday, my deadline to file amendments to the capital spending plan resolution is June 20 at noon. I hope that everyone continues to row in the same direction between now and then.

Follow-up: Capital Spending Plan

Earlier today, I posted about my plan to try to amend the Capital Spending Plan to remove $40 million related to the Sheriff’s Office.

This afternoon, I was told that the Council hasn’t amended a Capital Spending Plan for at least 10 years. If that’s true, wow!

For background, there are two different documents – the Capital Improvements Budget (CIB) and the Capital Spending Plan (CSP).  The CIB is a huge document that has 6 years of capital projects listed in it. The document is messy. For example, a new Sheriff’s Department headquarters is listed twice in the CIB. (Look at Item 17GS0018 on page III-27 for $20,000,000, and Item 17SO0001 on page III-153 for $21,464,700.) Our new Mayor has committed to have the Planning Department clean up the CIB and its presentation. But that is expected to take a few years.

If a project is listed in the CIB, it is considered to be eligible for capital spending. But being listed in the CIB does NOT mean that any funds are actually appropriated for the project. In order for a project to actually be funded, it has to appear in the CSP and the Council has to approve Metro incurring the debt to pay for the CSP. This might make you wonder, “Well, who cares if a project is in the CIB or not??” Here’s why – if a project is in the CIB, it only takes 21 votes to approve funding for the project. If a project is not in the CIB, it takes 27 votes to approve funding for the project. So, it does matter if a project is in the CIB.

Apparently, for years and years, the Council has removed or added projects to the CIB.  Last year, for example, the flood wall and the police HQ were removed from the CIB.  I’m told that there is no recent history of removing projects from the CSP. I’m not sure this makes sense to me.

I would think that there are some projects where the Council should look at the CIB, and others where we should look at the CSP. With the flood wall last year, I was busy campaigning, but I never understood the project. With that one, it made sense that it was removed from the CIB and was therefore not eligible to be funded at all. But with the Sheriff’s headquarters, I am ok with the project being in the CIB – consolidating the Sheriff’s administrative functions somewhere makes sense to me. I just don’t want money to be appropriated for the project at this time – that’s why I think it should be removed from the CSP (even if the project remains in the CIB and eligible for funding at some point).

I’ll keep trying to share my observations about the Metro budget process as it unfolds.

Amending the Capital Spending Plan

On June 7, the Council will consider the proposed $475 million capital spending plan.  I expect this resolution to be deferred to allow it to track with the capital improvements budget ordinance. I plan to file two amendments to the capital spending plan. One would remove the $20 million for the Criminal Justice Center, and the other would remove the $20 million for a new Sheriff’s Office headquarters. You can see my draft amendments here and here.

The way the capital spending plan works is that the Council approves an “Initial Resolution” that authorizes Metro to borrow money for certain listed projects.  The Initial Resolution is RS2016-245.  You can see the listed projects here.

My logic is simple. The end user of these buildings (the Sheriff) is vocally and publicly complaining that the executive branch of government in Davidson County is not qualified to take the “lead” in designing and constructing these buildings. Those of us in the legislative branch (the Council) typically have two tools – we can pass laws and we can appropriate money. To me, where there is a disagreement like this, the Council should stop appropriating money for the projects and make sure that the disagreement gets ironed out first.

If this were pretty much any other department in Metro complaining that their building was going to be a non-functional mess, the solution would be easy.  On the Metro organization chart, you would find that the complaining party reports directly or indirectly to the Mayor. In that situation, it would be easy to see that the boss, the Mayor, would always win that disagreement.

Here, there is more to think through. The Sheriff holds a position that is created under the Tennessee Constitution. So, the Mayor is not the Sheriff’s boss, and the Sheriff does not report to the Mayor. However, the Sheriff does depend completely upon the Mayor’s office and the Council for funding. Back in the early days of Metro, the Mayor and Sheriff had a disagreement that had to be settled by the Tennessee Supreme Court. In Metro v. Poe, 383 S.W.2d 265 (Tenn. 1964), the Tennessee Supreme Court held that “..the Sheriff, as an officer of the Metropolitan Government is…bound by the budgetary and purchasing provisions of the Charter.” The bottom line is that the Sheriff doesn’t have a boss (other than the voters), but the Sheriff can’t do much without funds being appropriated by the Council and being spent by the Mayor. This is a political check and balance that was intentionally built into the Metro Charter.

So – back to the current complaints raised by the Sheriff. To me, three things are true: (1) as a legal matter, there is no question that the Mayor, as leader of the executive branch under the Metro Charter, wins this disagreement every time; (2) the Sheriff, as a separately elected official of Davidson County, has the right to complain about who is leading the construction projects; and (3) when the Sheriff makes that complaint, it is a political complaint, not a legal one. Listen, calling the Sheriff’s complaint a political one is not meant to demean it. The fact is that the Sheriff thinks the Mayor is exercising the power of her office poorly and he wants people to know about it. The reality is that, given how clear the law is, if a mutual agreement is not an option, apparently the only alternative is to make a political complaint alleging that the Mayor is doing a bad job with these constructions projects.

The goal of my two proposed amendments is to address the political disagreement. Having the Council walk into this fight probably won’t be fun; but it is the responsible thing for the Council to do.  Leaving the disagreement unresolved might lead to poor teamwork, lost opportunity, and wasted dollars. The citizens of Nashville should demand that the Sheriff be on the same page as the Mayor before we spend another $40 million. The citizens of Nashville don’t want to toss a $40 million log onto a blazing political fire; they deserve better. When everyone is on the same page, the money can be appropriated then.

 

 

Air Quality Ordinance on 3rd Reading

I’m hearing a lot of community support in favor CM Bedne’s proposed air quality ordinance. There is also a concerted state-wide lobbying effort by interests opposed to the bill.

I wrote about the original version of the bill on May 13.

Since then, it has been substituted once and I expect it to be again before the Council meeting on June 7. I think CM Bedne is doing a good job of collecting comments from the Health Department (who implements Nashville’s air quality regulations) and also a good job of working to reduce any unintended consequences.

I haven’t seen the changes that I expect CM Bedne will file tomorrow. But, if the core thrust of the bill remains in place, I will support it. As I wrote a month ago, “The proposed ordinance simply puts the ball in the court of the State Air Pollution Control Board for them to decide whether our existing zoning law will be included in our state air quality standards.” To be more specific, if we pass CM Bedne’s bill, the state then will have to decide whether Nashville’s zoning regulations will become part of Tennessee’s State Implementation Plan (SIP) about air quality standards.

The Metro Council’s lawyer, Mike Jameson, agrees.  In the Analysis (p. 26) for this week’s Council meeting, he writes:

“The proposed ordinance reflects an attempt to amend this portion of Tennessee’s SIP for Davidson County… If this substitute ordinance is passed, subsequent approval by the state’s Air Pollution Control Board would be required for inclusion within the SIP. If approved, the amended SIP must then be submitted to the EPA for approval. The amendment would not be federally enforceable until those two steps were completed.”

If we pass CM Bedne’s bill, it won’t be a negative impact on business and it won’t create another fight between Nashville and the State of Tennessee. It is 100% clear that Nashville is already subordinate to the State of Tennessee and the federal government when it comes to air quality regulation, and it is 100% clear that Nashville has the right to ask to change the regulations that apply inside Nashville.

The bottom line for me is that I do not see where there could be a negative financial impact on Nashville from simply asking the State of Tennessee’s Air Pollution Board to consider a change to Tennessee’s air pollution standards.

 

Helpful Metro Websites

Councilmember Kathleen Murphy has put together a list of helpful Metro websites. Here’s her list.

I appreciate her putting this list together.  It pulls together a variety of links about development, zoning, Metro Codes, and Public Works. She also links to some helpful maps. Thanks, Kathleen!

More about Nashville General Hospital

On May 27, 2016, the Mayor, Dr. Joseph Webb, Dr. James Hildreth, and Councilmember Erica Gilmore announced a plan for an independent third party assessment of the financial and governance structure of Nashville General Hospital. The goal is to strengthen the long-term viability of this important Nashville institution.

I am glad that this project is going to happen. I want to share some of my thoughts about what I think will happen.

To start, though, I think it is important to acknowledge some of the difficulties in talking about the hospital. This is a topic where the words we use matter. For example, while Nashville General Hospital does serve a significant number of indigent patients, calling it a “hospital of last resort” suggests an inherently poor quality of service. And, while Metro has been budgeting $35 million for the hospital’s operating budget, calling it a “subsidy” suggests the money is a handout. Unfortunately, in the context of historical racial segregation in our nation and state and city, these word choices can sometimes send a conversation in a bad direction almost immediately.

I believe that Nashville General Hospital is an important institution in Nashville. I believe we can take care of all Nashvillians with high quality health care. I believe that the money Metro pays is an investment in all of us, not a handout.

With all of that said, here’s what I think I know:

  • There is at least one media outlet that has called this an “independent audit.” It is not an audit. The term used has been “financial assessment.” I have said previously that I would like to see the hospital have more resources to help with its budgeting and cash forecasting.
  • I have worked with KraftCPAs and Kevin Crumbo on projects before. They are good at what they do. They won’t come in with preconceived notions. They will have their hearts in the right place. Kevin never sought attention for it, but he was instrumental in re-working the Contributor’s business plan a few years ago (when they increased price and publication frequency). He donated his time and expertise then to help the Contributor survive and thrive. His work with the Nashville Symphony is also well-documented.
  • This financial assessment is consistent with Dr. Webb’s goals. To accomplish major change, you have to be very good at the fundamentals. The hospital just hired a new CFO, and Dr. Webb is still pretty new himself – now is the perfect time for this project. If there is a strong finance function to provide strong financial reporting, then the hospital will be able to make strong decisions.
  • I have one Council colleague who tweeted yesterday that, with “an entity that is subsidized $35 million a year,” it is important to know more. I have another Council colleague who replied, “what will this…tell us that we already don’t know?” These are both legitimate sentiments – but I think the limited phrasing available in 140 characters on Twitter creates the risk of possibly stumbling over the language problems I mentioned. We have to see the money as an investment in critical health care infrastructure. That re-frames everything. And we have to acknowledge that facts are our friends – more facts lead to better decision-making.
  • It is important to avoid the blame game as more facts are learned. If the facts show that there are improvements that might be made, that doesn’t mean someone has done a bad job. Seriously, look around your own workplace – most of us work in a place where most everyone is hard working and good at what they do. But there is always room to grow, to get more competitive, to turbocharge your organization. Nashville General Hospital is no different – having ideas for improvements does NOT necessarily mean anything about how good a job any single individual is doing. Embracing and empowering ideas for improvement is how the best change happens. I believe Dr. Webb shares this view and that’s why he is a partner in this new financial and governance assessment.

Finally, I want to thank Mayor Barry, Dr. Webb, Dr. Heldreth, and Councilmember Gilmore for collaborating on this project. This is the right time for everyone involved to have a fresh assessment of the hospital’s finances.