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Capitol View commentary: Friday, December 13, 2019

Posted: 12:12 PM, Dec 13, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-13 14:44:54-05
Capitol View

CAPITOL VIEW
By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst
December 13, 2019

MAYOR JOHN COOPER GETS STATE APPROVAL FOR METRO’S BUDGET AFTER OUTLINING A PLAN TO FILL A $41.5 MILLION DEFICI T; HERE’S ANOTHER POSSIBLE REVENUE SOURCE; BEING A PEDESTRIAN IS DANGEROUS IN NASHVILLE; THE ON-AGAIN, OFF- AGAIN, ON-AGAIN METRO POLICE BODY CAMERAS; REDEVELOPING THE FAIRGROUNDS; THE IMPEACHMENT DIE IS CAST BUT THEN SOMETHING ALMOST BI-PARTISAN HAPPENED; LARRY WOOODS AND DEBRA MAGGART ON INSIDE POLITICS; MAJOR STATE HOUSE GOP LEADERS CALL FOR REMOVAL OF THE FORREST BUST FROM CAPITOL;

MAYOR JOHN COOPER GETS STATE APPROVAL FOR METRO’S BUDGET AFTER OUTLINING A PLAN TO FILL A $41.5 MILLION DEFICIT

Metro government took another step this week to move the city away from the financial cliff and avoid a state takeover of local finances. Mayor John Cooper, through his Finance Director Kevin Crumby, has presented a plan to the State Comptroller to fill a $41.5 million hole in the city’s operating budget. Based on that plan, Metro has now received the required approval of its budget from the state and can move ahead to implement it.

Despite that good news, achieving the required budget reductions are subject to many varying factors and will not be easy to achieve in next seven months (by the end of the fiscal year June 30, 2020). The plan anticipates additional revenues to be realized by several government-related agencies as well as the impounding of millions of dollars in city funds. It is a move that has several Council members unhappy, but they are powerless to stop or change the action under the Metro Charter. The city must have a balanced budget. The sole power to impound funds to balance a budget is completely up to the Mayor and his Finance Director.

Frankly, when Council members were briefed by the Finance Director on Wednesday night, they were already not happy. While appreciative of the work that has been done, and pleased to learn the state has approved the city’s budget, some wondered why they weren’t briefed or had their input solicited before the plan was sent to the state.

What also ticked them off was a speech Mayor Cooper made to business leaders on Tuesday morning where he seemed to shared details of the plan being sent to the state (again before the Council had been briefed). Even more upsetting to Councilmembers was Mayor Cooper several times saying during his Tuesday remarks that Nashville is already in receivership (i.e. state control of Metro’s finances). It’s not. That is false.

Trying to quell the furor over his speech to business leaders and his receivership comments, Mayor Cooper began the Council briefing session by telling those present his comments were “my mistake.” That apology may mitigate some of the unhappiness, but what the Mayor said will not likely end the Council’s pique. The honeymoon isn’t over, but this is clearly the first tiff between the new Council and the new Mayor. One lawmaker later in the briefing pointed out that John Cooper, while a member of the last Council, voted two years in a row against a property tax increase that would have avoided a budget deficit like this. Ouch!

The Mayor’s comments concerning ‘receivership” also drew calls from Metro vendors concerned about Metro’s financial condition. Finance Director Crumbo reassured them he told the Council. He said after he explained the situation to the vendors, they “had a good laugh about it.” Councilmembers did not laugh on Wednesday.

Here are the areas where Metro is hoping through increased revenues or impoundments that the city will balance its budget.

$12.6 million from a PILOT with Music City Center; (PILOT stands for paying in lieu of property taxes)
$10 million from a PILOT with Metro Water Services;
$7.2 million from refinancing of Metro Development and Housing Agency tax increment payments;
$3.6 million from debt reimbursement from the Convention & Visitors Corp; and
$500,000 from program reimbursement from the Davidson County Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Marshals Service.

The remaining needed funds will come from an estimated $2.6 million in additional targeted savings and deferrals in spending from Metro departments and a $5 million cut to the Barnes Fund for Affordable Housing, which the administration announced last week.

Councilmembers are particularly upset about the $5 million in impounded monies from the Barnes Fund. That money is used to give grants to local non-profits to build affordable housing. The cut represents a 50% decrease in annual grant funding and was announced last week to housing advocates just minutes before all $10 million of this year’s grants were to be awarded. That timing is another “transparency issue” bothering lawmakers about this plan and the Cooper administration.

While he is an affordable housing advocate himself, Finance Director Crumbo explains the Barnes Fund is considered discretionary funding for the city and therefore more likely to be impounded as compared to employee layoffs or other cuts impacting vital city services. He said even economic development efforts will be curtailed the rest of this fiscal year, although he gave no further details.

Local groups, who were depending on the grant funds, are now scrambling to piece the financing of their affordable housing projects together. It may be discretionary spending for Metro, but it can make a life-changing difference for those in need of an affordable place to live.

Councilmembers made it clear they want the Barnes Fund monies given top priority to be restored as soon as possible. The Finance Director noted that request and said the Cooper administration has hopes that could happen even before the end of the fiscal year.

But he also added if the current projected savings or impoundments don’t generate enough funds to fill the budget gap, more cuts and impoundments would be needed.

There were also Council questions about the increase in the Water Services PILOT. Those asking didn’t remember the increase being mentioned when the Council recently approved a multi-year rate increase plan for Metro customers. There was also a brief mention of the Metropolitan Airport Authority providing some unspecified financial assistance to the city in the future (PILOT?). The Airport operates with fees collected from the airlines and from grants from the federal and state government. It does not receive Metro tax funds.

Under its new agreement with the state, the city also hopes to give to provide by the end of February, a draft plan to develop a comprehensive cash flow management system, which would be a first of its kind in Tennessee. In addition, each year the city will share with the state its audited financial reports no later than the end of December. That will begin this month.

Finally, to get a head start on developing and getting state approval of future Metro operating budgets, Metro offered and the Comptroller agreed to have the Cooper administration and the Council to move up final approval of the budget a full month (from by July 1 to June 1). That will also mean a full month jump ahead on the deadline to submit the annual spending plan to the Council for its review from May 1 to April 1.

One thing is certain. This upcoming 2020-2021 fiscal year budget will be the most closely watched spending plan and approval process in Metro’s 57-year history. That’s because long term budget challenges are far from over. Quoting from the letter to Metro from State Comptroller Justin Wilson in approving this year’s budget: “It should be noted that the proposed actions are no cure for Metro’s long- term budget concerns but are responsive to immediate financial issues. Assertive leadership and diligence are needed to meet the challenges ahead.”

Here are some of other local media report on this issue:
THE TENNESSEAN
THE NASHVILLE SCENE
NEWSCHANNEL 5

David Plazas of THE TENNESSEAN also offers these comments. He calls the mayor’s plan a coup but also points to transparency lessons that need to be learned for the future.
Mayor Cooper was not all about budgets this week. He is issuing a challenge to local restaurants to help reduce the amount of food thrown away during the holiday season. It is a major issue with up to 40% of food in the U.S. going uneaten, and 95% of that total ending up in landfills or incinerators .

HERE’S ANOTHER POSSIBLE REVENUE SOURCE

Metro officials have been looking for additional revenue for weeks now. NEWSCHANNEL5’s INVESTIGATES reporter Ben Hall has been looking as well.

He may have found something that would generate hundreds of thousands of dollars if the city would just enforce a law regarding removing parking meters to create valet parking areas for hotels.

There is certainly some potential irony here. One major reason Metro’s budget is in the red is because the Metro Council refused to go along with plans to privatize the downtown parking meter system. Now enforcing an existing law impacting the removal of parking meters could help fill in the budget gap.

BEING A PEDESTRIAN IS DANGEROUS IN NASHVILLE

39 Nashvillians have been killed so far in calendar year 2019 while being pedestrians.

Almost all of them died along streets without sidewalks. The latest victim lost her life this week. She was killed by a hit and run driver who didn’t stop and is still at large.

Nashville has a notorious history about building sidewalks. Before consolidated government, the county didn’t build sidewalks and the city often did not require them of new developers when they built homes or commercial developments.

Even in recent years, while mayors and council members have touted miles of new sidewalks approved to be built, no priority list of areas to receive this service has ever resulted in addressing the issue. Sometimes it still appears sidewalks are built by Metro and developers in areas where safety is not a top priority. Some critics even claim, Nashville has sometimes built sidewalks from “nowhere to nowhere.”

Metro Vice Mayor Jim Schulman has appointed a special committee to look into the matter. The group is made up of both council members and citizens. They are due to issue a report with recommendations in January.

THE ON-AGAIN, OFF- AGAIN, ON-AGAIN METRO POLICE BODY CAMERAS

The city of Nashville began moving towards a police body camera system way back in 2016. Two officer related shootings seem to heighten the need for some kind of oversight system as voters also overwhelmingly approved the creation of a community oversight board to review complaints about police activities.

But the city has learned the cost of implementing a body cam is much greater than first estimated and it involves an expansive support system.

A recently as September, all systems seemed go to begin a partial rollout of the body cameras to some Metro officers.

But then came the Metro election. A new mayor, John Cooper, took office. After surveying the city’s serious money issues, which has the state threatening a financial take over , the police body cam system went back on hold in mid-November.

Community activists of course were greatly upset by the latest delay , even the leadership of the Community Oversight Board spoke out.

Within a day after the COB leaders complained, Mayor Cooper reversed course, announcing an immediate installation of body cameras for a few police officers.

With Metro Police employing over a 1,000 officers, equipping just 44 with body cams between January and next June and is hardly a drop of water in an ocean. But Mayor Cooper says the only way to implement a program like this is to do it right and that’s why is implementing this phase-in plan. Body cams were also listed by city finance officials as discretionary spending during its budget crunch.

It is doubtful the pilot program to begin to get body cameras on the street will do much of anything to satisfy those who see this effort as vitally important to the city. In some ways the effort by Mayor Cooper is rather similar to what former Mayor David Briley said he planned to do back in September.

Will the pilot effort indicate it will be cheaper to fully implement the body cam system which is estimated by Davidson County District Attorney to cost $36 million a year just for the criminal justice system? Even if the phase-in is cheaper, the city will still likely need to appropriate $ millions more to get it fully implemented. In a city strapped for funds, where will that money be found beginning in this coming year’s or future budgets?

REDEVELOPING THE FAIRGROUNDS

From the latest news stories I am reading, it appears the redevelopment of the city’s Fairgrounds is a complex tangle of issues that need resolution.

While on the campaign trail, candidate John Cooper told me on INSIDE POLITICS, that he considered building the new MLS soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds to be “settled business.” But after assuming office, Mayor Cooper has held up signing the necessary papers for demolition work to move the project ahead. He seems to be concerned Metro does not have the funds allocated to do all the infrastructure work needed, such as road improvements and water and sewer upgrades.

Does the Mayor want the MLS team owners and developers of the stadium, along with 10 acres of surrounding land, to ante up more funds? If so, would the Cooper administration support changing a last- minute amendment added to the MLS deal a few months, which seems to be creating problems for the project to get long term financing?

Is the Fairgrounds still the most likely site for the MLS stadium? Would Mayor Cooper prefer the Phillips Metals site on the East Bank? A recent deal to buy the land by former Mayor Briley apparently fell through.

If the MLS stadium and its surrounding development stays at the Fairgrounds, is there enough room for it AND a proposed $ 60 million NASCAR redevelopment of the Nashville Speedway immediately next door? To further complicate matters, there is also an active lawsuit seeking to stop the MLS development because it violates a provision protecting the Fairgrounds which voters approved overwhelmingly a few years ago.

The NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL offers even more details and insights in this article.

In a related development this week, officials of the Metro Fair Board seem to making strides in finding a new Raceway operator.

Stay tuned to see if and how all the many aspect of this Metro Gordian knot find some way to be worked out.

THE IMPEACHMENT DIE IS CAST BUT THEN SOMETHING ALMOST BI-PARTISAN HAPPENED

It took an extra full day and 15-hours of debate in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, but it appears the die is cast in Washington.

For only the fourth time in U.S. history, that committee has approved articles of impeachment against an incumbent President.

As expected, reaction from our Tennessee congressional representatives about the articles of impeachment are split completely along party lines.

With Democrats controlling the lower chamber, it seems clear the full House will approve the two impeachment articles (abuse of power & obstruction of Congress) in a floor vote next week before lawmakers go home for the holiday recess. The vote to impeach will be only the third time that has occurred. President Nixon resigned before the full House voted on his impeachment in 1974.

The other impeached Presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton stood trial in the Senate, which it appears President Donald Trump will have to do in January 2020.

No impeached President has ever been convicted and removed from office. That takes a two- thirds vote in the Senate.

Some progressive Democrats are unhappy the articles of impeachment do not delve into what they see as the obstruction of justice efforts by the President as outlined in the Mueller report. But House Democratic leaders believe the two articles they are pursuing will be easier for the public to support and understand and they will also get the most votes of support among House Democrats. But there do seem to be some moves among more conservative Democrats, and those who represent districts President Trump carried in 2016, that a motion to censure the President might be more in order than a failed impeachment trial in the Senate. Don’t expect that change of course to be made.

House Republicans and the President say the Democrats on-going witch hunt has produced a weak case for removal. In fact, almost no one is predicting that enough GOP Senators (from 17- 20) will vote to remove their party’s leader, which is what it would take to get a two-thirds vote in the upper Chamber to convict and remove Mr. Trump from office.

But while most see the next several weeks as a sign of worsening gridlock and rancor in Washington, others see the narrowing scope of the impeachment charges, combined with a bi-partisanship deal to approve the new US, Mexico & Canada trade deal announced by House Democrats within an hour after the articles of impeachment were announced on Tuesday, as a sign that moderates for once won in Washington and that Congress may still be able to get some things done despite the deep divisions arising from impeachment. But a counter argument says the Democrats got in the way of the news coverage of their own impeachment efforts and they have given the President a major victory on an issue he campaigned on three years ago and will use again in 2020.

LARRY WOOODS AND DEBRA MAGGART ON INSIDE POLITICS

While the arguing never stops, this week on INSIDE POLITICS, we seek reflect on the history and very serious nature of the impeachment related developments of this week. We will also discuss what happens next and what all this will mean to our politics and civil discourse in our nation.

We have as our guests Democratic Analyst Larry Woods and Republican Debra Maggart.

Tune in!

Our INSIDE POLITICS broadcast schedule on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS includes:

7:00 p.m. Friday;
5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday;
1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.

This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website for your viewing under the NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS section. A link to the show is posted as well on the Facebook page of NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Each new show and link are posted the week after the program airs.

Finally, I am now posting a link to the show each week on my Facebook page as soon as it is available, usually on Monday or Tuesday.

MAJOR STATE HOUSE GOP LEADERS CALL FOR REMOVAL OF THE FORREST BUST FROM CAPITOL

With Tennessee lawmakers due to return to Nashville in about a month, the yearly controversy over the future of the bust of Civil War Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest is already flaring up.

The bust has resided just outside the Senate chambers for several years. In the past, Republican House Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison has opposed moves to take down the Forrest bust, or move it. But now he’s changed his mind and wants to move it to the State Museum. He is also offering some interesting replacements for the Forrest bust on the Hill.

Tennessee law makes it difficult (some might say all but impossible) to move historical items like the Forrest bust. Even an effort to do it led by former Governor Bill Haslam failed a few years ago. Will things turn out differently this time? At this point, I wouldn’t bet on it, even as a second GOP legislative leader is now calling for the Forrest bust to go.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Another issue that remains bubbling under the surface is the controversial education saving accounts or voucher program approved by lawmakers last session. Will it be implemented a year early? Will it be repealed after passing the House by just one vote? Is the FBI still probing how the votes to pass it in the House came to be? Will the funds given to parents in Nashville and Memphis, where the program will operate, be taxable by the federal government? Finally, will the Memphis and Nashville school boards go to court to stop the program?