By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations
November 20, 2009
INSIDE POLITICS; PARK IT; A GOOD EXTENSION; A CENTER OF CONTENTION; STATE BUDGET TALES; STRAW POLL VERSUS CAMPAIGN POLL; LATE COURT RULINGS; HEALTH CARE SHOWDOWN;
My guest this week on INSIDE POLITICS is Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.
And, once again you can see the broadcast on the main channel (WTVF-TV), NewsChannel5 at 6:30 PM tonight (Friday).
The mayor's appearance comes as the city has just released a new outside, third party financial study which says Metro can afford to build the new Music City Center convention center downtown. The mayor says he and his staff had no input into the study (although Metro is paying for it). The Mayor claims that the first time he saw the results was when he received the report. He also points out the firm who did the study (HVS Consultants) has a national reputation for doing good work in this area, and that HVS was recommended to the city by none other than Gaylord Hotels, a company not exactly known as a supporter of the convention center project.
The new study is much less optimistic than previous studies about how many jobs, room nights and dollars the center will bring to town, but the Mayor seems to like it that way, since it still indicates the project is feasible with the new tourist-related taxes now in place, and it shows that Nashville has such a strong brand among cities that it will continue to draw plenty of conventions and tourists here.
Critics point out that studies like these across the country have proven to be wrong, leaving taxpayers in the lurch. They are still concerned that might happen here since the study is based on having an adjoining convention center hotel, the financing for which remains very much up in the air. The Mayor says he is confident everything will work out fine, although he is not ready to talk much at all about how the convention hotel might be financed and built. He does say the HVS Consultant group is working on a financial feasibility study on that as well, which should be done next month or in January.
That report could be very critical as Metro council members and those in the hotel-motel industry strongly believe it would be a mistake to build the center without also erecting a hotel to serve it. But for now the Mayor is concentrating solely on moving ahead on the convention center and says he will deal with the hotel after the HVS study is done.
There's a lot more we discuss on the program about the convention center as well as the city's financial and budgetary condition, the prospects for a property tax hike next year (or the year after), the future of the State Fairgrounds and the recent resignation of Parks Director Roy Wilson and what the future holds for that important city department.
You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL NETWORK.
In addition to our Friday evening (6:30 PM) appearance on the main channel, we are also back on Channel 5 on Sunday morning (November 22) this week at 5:00 AM.
You can also see us on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS at 7:00 PM tonight (Friday) as well as at 5:00 AM both Saturday and Sunday mornings (November 21 & 22) and at 5:30 PM Saturday (November 22) and 12:30 PM on Sunday (November 22).
NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS can be seen on the Comcast and Charter cable networks on Channel 250 as well as over the air on NEWSCHANNEL5's digital channel 5.2.
And so, as we mentioned above, embattled Metro Parks Director Roy Wilson is leaving his job in the wake of an ongoing feud with the administration of Mayor Karl Dean. It's a controversy which in recent weeks, has centered around a multi-million dollar budget overrun.
But what a way to leave! There was no big news conference or a dramatic press release. There was no final defense by minority members of the Metro Council hinting that something racial was afoot. Instead Wilson's departure came in a simple letter of resignation and from an e-mail he sent his employees (telling them he was accepting a job elsewhere) which was leaked to THE CITY PAPER (November 18).
But given the on-going bad employee morale reported by some media sources among Park employees during Wilson's time in that city department, perhaps this is a fitting way for it to end. Wilson also seemed to take one more last shot at the Dean administration in his resignation letter, saying he was leaving because his mama told him "to read the handwriting on the wall." That sounds like a nice of saying he feels the Mayor forced him out.
But what is not ending in the wake of Wilson's departure is the budget crunch at Parks, with Metro Council soon to consider an $800,000 bail out from city's reserve funds to keep parks services going for now and greatly reducing any layoffs to no more than a hand-full (about 5).
Nobody likes to see community centers or nature centers, swimming pools or golf courses closed or their hours reduced. So you can understand why the move is being made to use the city's "rainy day" funds. But is it really wise? This is one-time money being used for on-going expenses. It's paying your house note from your savings, not your checking account. Like the state, Metro's tax collections and other revenues are continuing to decline. It's going to be another very ugly budget-making process next spring and summer for the Mayor and Metro Council. And it won't just be Metro Parks in the soup financially, but also likely, Metro Libraries, Codes, Public Works, maybe even Metro emergency services such as Fire and Police, or possibly Metro schools.
Since any kind of property tax increase both this year and next are apparently not prominent on the Mayor's radar screen (2011 is a Metro election year), what happens? The rainy day fund sure can't handle all the likely shortfalls. It would be more than sucked dry and then some if used to handle the deficits that are likely.
Tough times indeed!
A SMART MOVE
The Dean administration did make a very wise decision in extending the life of operations at the State Fairgrounds property through the end of 2010.
While you can have a pretty good debate about whether the Raceway there and the annual State Fair is worth continuing (and there's a group looking at court action over the Fair), the decision to close everything down effective June 30, 2010 was working a real hardship on a number of community groups such as those who put on the annual Christmas Village and Nashville Lawn & Garden Show which are charitable fundraisers. It also hurt the Flea Market which has a very devoted monthly following coming to the Fairgrounds.
Giving these organizations more time to find new locations defuses (at least for the moment) a potentially very ticklish political situation. Frankly, I am not sure where these folks can go inside Davidson County. I am hearing the Mayor's office is pushing the Municipal Auditorium. But if that's the case, the recent decision to start charging for downtown parking meters on Saturdays sure isn't going to help. And the rates keep going up too. I can remember just a few months ago when a quarter would buy you up to a half hour or 20 minutes on a meter, now a quarter good for only 10 minutes. I know Metro needs more revenue, but driving out of county groups such as Christmas Village, the Lawn & Garden Show and the Flea Market also means losing sales tax revenues for Metro as well.
But at least for now these groups can work with their vendors and (others who plan a year in advance) knowing they have a 2010 location at the Fairgrounds secured.
A CENTER OF CONTENTION
Here are some more thoughts about the Music City Center.
The city's efforts to build the facility remain a growing center of contention.
While a final financing plan for the Center has yet to be presented or approved by the Metro Council (it's due in December), the city is still moving ahead to acquire the property, including beginning condemnation proceedings. That has one of the major property owners in the area, Tower Investments, striking back with a media blitz accusing the city of moving ahead too quickly and offering too low a price. The owners question whether the public necessity of taking Tower's property has been met (which is required for the government to condemn land) when the Council has still not given its final approval to the overall project.
I am sure not a lawyer, but that would seem to be a very good point to make in court. But Mayor Dean says the public need and the government's intent has been clearly shown by the Metro Council's approval both to locate the Center on Tower's property and to acquire that land.
Remember the property Tower owns is not just any land. It is the large parking lot right behind the Sommet Center and it is right in the footprint for the actual Convention Center building itself. Tower also claims it has its own plans to develop the land making it much more valuable than what the city claims its worth.
City officials say they are largely unaware of Tower's new plans, pointing out no one from Tower mentioned anything about it during the many public meetings held during the planning for the new Center. Tower does have something of a history with this project. It was unsuccessful in trying to be named hotel developer, after some months earlier seeking to interest Metro in giving the entire project to the company, saying it would handle all the other details of getting the development done in a turnkey manner. Metro said no.
And there's one more involvement that makes all this legal and media fighting between Tower and Metro ven more ironic. The property Tower owns once belonged to Metro, purchased as a part of the Sommet Center development.
Based on past history, Tower's efforts to defy condemnation face a very uphill battle to be successful, but they could increase the costs of the project (if Metro has to significantly jack up its $$$ offer to settle the matter). Meanwhile the city is already coming under the gun to have the new facility (both the center and the hotel) constructed and open for business by late 2013 or face seeing some of the early events planned in the facility cancelled and penalties having to be paid by the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
There continues to be quite a bit of speculation, but little hard information, about how the city will proceed with the adjoining convention hotel that is planned for the project. Clearly, the pending HVS study will tell us a lot about how matter will proceed. Meantime, a well-placed source says while the plans for hotels may not be sent to the Council with the rest of the financial package in December, people are going to be surprised by what may ultimately be proposed and that there is still a possibility the hotel will be privately financed. If the Mayor's team can pull that off, even if the hotel project is a bit delayed, it could well undermine a good bit of the remaining opposition to the plan.
(Full disclosure: My employer, DVL Public Relations, has sometimes worked with the public relations firm assisting Towers Investment, The Moriah Group. DVL is not involved with Moriah in this particular matter).
STATE BUDGET HEARINGS
We spent a lot of time in the last column talking about how bad things are financially for Tennessee's state government. Governor Phil Bredesen on my INSIDE POLITICS said the next six months are likely to be the toughest he's had in his nearly seven years as Governor with a budget deficit of $1 billion facing the state.
Well, no sooner did the Governor begin his budget hearings this past week than the deficit seem to grow another half billion dollars to $1.5 billion according to some media reports (THE CITY PAPER, November 17).
Now that is a LOT of money, and state commissioners were soon singing for the Governor chorus after chorus of the budget blues, outlining just how terrible it would be if they had to institute 9% cuts to annual budgets that have already been slashed significantly in past years.
That included right out of the box, on the very first day of the budget hearings, a prediction by state Corrections officials that up to 4,000 non-violent inmates (behind bars for offenses such as robbery among other charges) could be released from prison early.
Yikes! Victim's right groups were quick to call foul, pointing out that providing safety and security should always be government's first priority. Even the Governor seemed to blanch, saying prisons would probably not be an area where a full 9% cut would be implemented. Both Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz and state lawmakers are already at work looking at alternative cuts in the Corrections Department besides releasing inmates.
But to get to $1.5 billion, you have to cut somewhere. And if you don't take it from Corrections or K-12 or you-name-the state department, it just makes the cuts deeper and more severe where reductions are implemented.
Now I know there will be folks who will dismiss all these budget predictions as bogus. And they have some good past history to cite. I can remember when I was a TV reporter and every time Mayor Fulton asked about reducing expenses, the city's Health Director said the first thing to go would be the city's very important rat reduction program in the inner city. Or then there was the time that the Fire Chief told the Mayor that if his department was cut anymore, you'd just have to make an appointment if you had a fire at your house.
But even giving some benefit of the doubt for exaggeration, the state is facing some very serious budget decisions, perhaps the most difficult since the dark days of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
STRAW POLL VERSUS CAMPAIGN POLL
In the Democratic primary campaign for the 2010 governor's race, the search for a front runner continues.
It has presently come down to one candidate (Senator Roy Herron) showing how well he can organize and turn out his supporters by convincingly winning 3 consecutive straw polls taken at recent party events in Rutherford, Hamilton and Sullivan Counties versus another candidate (Mike McWherter) who has sent out an e-mail campaign fund raising appeal to would-be supporters releasing an internal campaign poll showing him clearly in the early lead.
No doubt a bit concerned about the momentum Herron may be trying to pick up by winning these straw polls, the McWherter e-mail says the straw polls amount to "more talking points…than a true barometer of the race." He then releases the results of an internal campaign poll he has commissioned and done by "a respected pollster with years of experience in Tennessee" including helping Governor Phil Bredesen among others.
The poll of 600 likely Democratic primary voters from across the state reportedly finds McWherter with 26% support, no doubt due largely to his name recognition as the son of a former Governor (Ned Ray McWherter). It shows the other four Democratic candidates, all in single digits, garnering 6% or less in support.
Releasing internal campaign polls is always a bit risky. Sometimes they are considered suspect or at the least a sign that the campaign releasing the results is concerned about public perceptions about the race and wants to use the poll to convince voters to see their candidate in the most positive light possible.
And so it goes…on to the next straw poll and the next fund raising appeal, we may not get a real feel for who is leading the Democratic field until the next overall fund raising numbers are released and that is still some time away.
LATE COURT RULINGS
Two court decisions issued late Friday afternoon (November 20) are sure create a lot of political conversation and new controversy in the days ahead.
The first concerns the lawsuit pending in Nashville's federal court alleging the Metro school board's new re-zoning plan was "re-segregating" local schools. While weeks of testimony had exposed some rather embarrassing and somewhat tawdry political details about how the student assignment plan came to be, most observers I had spoken with did not think anything major would come out of the case.
But maybe we need to think again.
THE TENNESSEAN (Clay Carey, November 20) reports on line that at the end of the latest hearing, Judge John Nixon ordered both sides "to meet behind closed doors and try to reach and out-of-court settlement before he ruled."
Not to read too much into that, but clearly I would think Metro school officials should be concerned about what that could mean. Stay tuned.
Meantime, look for the guns in bars debate on Tennessee's Capitol Hill and across the state to go back into overdrive after Nashville Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled late Friday afternoon (November 20) that the new state law allowing gun permit holders to bring their firearms into those facilities is "unconstitutional" because the law is "fraught with ambiguity."
What is not ambiguous is what Lucas Johnson of the Associated Press reports (November 20) that State Representative Curry Todd, a main sponsor of the guns in bars bill says "he will introduce legislation in January to fix any legal problems with the bill. Todd says he will also ask the state attorney general to appeal the ruling."
Here we go again!
HEALTH CARE SHOWDOWN
By the time you read this (if it is after Saturday), national health care reform may have taken another big step forward, or it could be on life support and all but dead.
It all comes down to whether the Democrats in the Senate (all 60 in their caucus) will vote to allow the upper chamber to consider the bill Senate leaders have come up on this controversial subject. This vote will be far from the last word on this matter. There are still votes cutting off debate (which also requires 60 votes), then final approval by the full Senate of a bill, which will then have to be reconciled with what the House has passed so a final proposal can be presented to be voted on in both houses.
But it all comes to 60 votes and with all the continuing controversy over the public option and now the language concerning abortion rights, nothing seems completely certain.
But you can tell lawmakers are getting in the holiday mood. None of the Republicans plan to vote for the pending health care bills and Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander says the Senate version is the same "turkey" voters didn't like back in August. He doesn't think they'll like it now.
Meanwhile, House Democrats have to be worried, first, if Senate Leader Harry Reid can play Santa Claus and deliver the presents (the votes) needed for approval, and second, they also must hope they won't all wind up receiving switches and ashes or a lump of coal from the voters instead if the Senate plan crashes and burn.