We are headed into the second month of the new Council term. There’s a lot brewing. Today I’ll talk about some of the money and budget issues facing Metro, but let me start with a handful of the more significant non-money issues:
- New Mayor, New Finance Director, New Legal Director: We have a Mayor who ran on change and now the top three positions on the first floor of the Courthouse have a cumulative six weeks of experience in Metro’s executive branch. They are highly skilled, diving in, and working hard. I assume that we may see some learning curve issues for a while??
- Transit: From conversations I’m having with people all over the county (not just the core), I think there’s some appetite to get back to transit sooner rather than later. I continue to believe that a focus on comprehensively good bus service along with substantial gains in sidewalks and bike lanes would be a winning place to start the conversation. I also think that Metro should pick out the worst traffic snarls in the outer third of the county and fix them. For the most part, these are formerly rural roads carrying too much volume and need to be upgraded no matter what the city does with transit.
- Policing: The Community Oversight Board has not been effectively established yet. My assessment is that it will take the Mayor’s office making it a priority if the city is going to properly implement the board. On top of this, there is confusion about the game plan for body cameras. And, there has been no public indication yet about what the relationship will be between Mayor Cooper and Chief Anderson. I won’t be pessimistic just a few weeks into this new term…but this topic has me worried.
- Sidewalks: Last term, Metro’s sidewalk program got bogged down with allegations of procurement irregularities and free sports tickets from vendors. The resulting Metro audit work is not done yet. We’ll be looking to the new administration to find a way to get these issues resolved and get more sidewalks built a lot faster than last term.
- Soccer, Fairgrounds, and the 10 acres: This topic has the feel of two fighter circling and sizing each other up. I don’t know whether we are going to end up with a genuine fight or a handshake. For now, here’s what I think is going on:
Mayor Cooper and his team are trying (I think) to come up with a total price tag for all work out done to date at the Fairgrounds, and a total expected price tag, and to compare that to the original projections.
Apparently, the development team for the 10 acres can’t get financing for their new building due to the “Freeman Amendment.” This was added to one of the soccer stadium bills. The Freeman Amendment requires the 10 acres to be returned to Metro if there is no professional soccer on the site for any 24 month period during the first 30 years of the 99 year lease. Will the Mayor agree to fix this to allow the financing to go forward? Will the Mayor want a price to be paid for this? Will a Council member file legislation to fix this without the Mayor agreeing to it? All open questions.
There’s also some talk that the cost of non-stadium work on the site is over-budget. I have no idea whether this is correct or not. So far, it’s just a rumor.
As we get through the end of 2019, I imagine we’re going to learn a lot more about whether these issues will turn into a fight or an agreed path forward.
- Comptroller: Here’s my October 3, 2019, post about meeting with the State Comptroller. The Comptroller will be in the Metro Council Chamber on November 13, 2019, from 4:30 to 6:30 PM to give a presentation and answer Council questions about Metro’s finances. I’ll provide more analysis after the presentation. For now, I’ll repeat that it took years to get to where we are today. Fixing it is very doable, and it will take several years of discipline, honesty, and effort. Not austerity. Not squeezing constituents on services or employees on pay — just discipline, honesty, and effort.
- Water rates: In the next several weeks, the State of Tennessee will order Metro to raise its water rates. It is embarrassing that the State has to order Metro to get its act together. Metro Water Services will also be present at the November 13 meeting to make a presentation about what is happening and why. On this one, in addition to the inevitable finger pointing about “how did this happen,” I think a lot of Council members are going to be upset about the fact that the Council never got told that the city was getting in trouble with the State. I and several co-sponsors will be introducing legislation to increase the Council’s annual oversight with Metro Water to make sure no future Council is kept in the dark like this.
- Mayor’s efforts to find more money downtown: A few weeks ago, the Mayor and Convention Center Authority (CCA) announced that the CCA will begin to make large annual payments that are the equivalent of property taxes on the Music City Center. Today, that is $12.6 million per year. There are still open questions about how this relates to the current $10 million per year that the CCA is paying Metro under a Memorandum of Understanding. Once that MOU expires in a year, I think the CCA and the Mayor will need to talk about whether the CCA will keep paying the $10 million to Metro each year (in addition to the $12.6 million property tax equivalent payment), or whether the CCA will pay some other amount, or if the CCA will instead start paying for capital improvements around downtown.
- Other places to find money: The rumor mill in Metro is going full speed about other ways the Mayor might find money. Some of the rumors could potentially make sense. Others sound outlandish. Since I really can’t tell what is potentially true and what is completely made up, I won’t spread these rumors. My point is that a central effort in the Mayor’s office these days is to honor his campaign promise to look for additional sources of revenue before talking about property tax rates.
- Under One Roof: Mayor Briley had announced that, if he won the election, he would propose spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the MDHA Envision projects. This “Under One Roof” program was never fully-baked and no funding for it was ever requested or approved. Now Mayor Cooper has announced that he is not going to pursue that plan. I agree with this approach. It is critically important that Nashville have high-quality low-income housing. If we spend hundreds of millions, we all need first to understand the expected cost of the Envision projects, what the total investment would be, and how the cost is calculated. None of that has been done yet. I think we will learn more in the coming months.
- MNPS: The needs of the school systems aren’t going away. As reported in the media in the last few weeks, MNPS may need more than $100 million per year in new operating funds to modernize their pay structure.
Again, this is a partial list of issues. Our election lull in the Council is about over. Though there is a lot of hard work to do, these are high class problems. Nashville is a dynamic, growing city. We will work through these issues and build a better future.