People in Nashville are understandably angry about having a tight budget in boom times. But this storm has been brewing for a while.
During the 2015 election season, one of the things that voters all around the county wanted to talk about most was “how come I’ve got problems in my part of town and we spend all that money downtown?” Voters have been ahead of the government on this. This budget season is making people wonder how they knew there was a problem and their leaders didn’t.
My comments in 2015 were centered around the ideas that: (1) economic development spending is not all “good” or all “bad”; and (2) there simply isn’t enough information available for even well-informed people to have any idea whether particular projects are a good use of funds or not. My argument then was that more information and more transparency would lead to better decisions.
I know I wasn’t alone in this. One mayoral candidate talked about these issues as his central platform, and another two had a heavy dose of these issues.
I also know I wasn’t the only Council member to hear these issues from the community. I’ve tried to make progress on this. My first legislation in office — along with 24 co-sponsors — was tax increment financing reform. The ordinance requires annual property-by-property detailed reporting about TIF projects by MDHA. This legislation also stopped the practice of using property tax dollars from one redevelopment district for projects outside the district. The fact that I had 24 co-sponsors sign onto this shows how much we heard about TIF from the community.
Last summer, I also passed legislation requiring Metro to have a more detailed “debt management policy.” Before this, Metro did have a written policy about how to decide the right amount of long term debt. But, paraphrasing, the previous policy was basically a few sentences that said “Metro considers many appropriate factors in deciding how much debt is appropriate.” The new beefed up written policy — starting at page 5/21 in this PDF — outlines specific factors to be considered and also for the first time acknowledges that Metro’s unfunded retiree benefits obligations should be considered when making decisions about long term debt. (More about the $3 billion unfunded retiree benefits obligations here.)
As a Council, we have also stood in the way of the downtown flood wall for these same reasons. I have felt and continue to feel that there is not popular support around the county for a $125 million downtown flood wall. This project might well be technically sound and perhaps needed to protect Nashville’s lucrative downtown business and entertainment district. But by the time of the 2015 campaign season, and continuing through today, voters have had it with what feels like opaque insider development decisions that mostly impact downtown. We shouldn’t spend that much money on a flood wall without addressing the underlying distrust issues that have been brewing for a while now.
During each of the previous two budget cycles, I have also raised questions about how the percent of the budget that Nashville spends on long term debt could be increasing while we have been in boom times. If your get a raise from $50,000 to $55,000 per year, you’d like to see the part of your paycheck that goes to debt decrease, not go up!! Voters maybe haven’t known the exact numbers…but they have known that something wasn’t quite right.
Back in 2015, these issues concerned me and I told voters that they raised a yellow flag, not a red one, for me. I often said that there was plenty of time to address these issues and make a course correction. The efforts I am describing with legislation, and in encouraging dialogue and consensus on the flood wall before pulling the trigger on a $125 million project, and in talking about Metro’s $3 billion unfunded retiree benefits obligations have all been to nudge the city toward the course correction that we need.
Now it is nearly three years later. The transparency added with the new legislation has been a critical first step. But now we need the data to drive decisions. While nobody wishes for a budget crunch or the other chaos of the last few months, maybe there is a silver lining. Nashville is fundamentally very strong. The current storm give us an opportunity to start the hard work and hard conversations we need to strike a new, better balance in how we deal with debt, development, and funding our retiree benefits.