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Capitol View commentary: Friday, December 6, 2019

Posted: 12:34 PM, Dec 06, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-06 13:34:41-05
Capitol View

METRO COUNCIL LEADERS ON INSIDE POLITICS AS CITY BEGINS TO MOVE BACK FROM THE BRINK; NOW TO BALANCE THE OPERATNG BUDGET; BILL WHITSON; GETTING GREENER; A DOWNTOWN PARKS REDEVELOPMENT UPDATE; PRAYING ABOUT IT ON THE HILL; SENATOR BLACKBURN’S TWEET; MORE SIGNS THE TENNESSEE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM IS BROKEN;

December 6, 2019

METRO COUNCIL LEADERS ON INSIDE POLITICS AS CITY BEGINS TO MOVE BACK FROM THE BRINK

It has been a somewhat disturbing last few months at the Metro Courthouse. A potential state takeover of Nashville’s Metro government finances has been threatened unless the city gets its house in order. This past week the Metro Council took a step towards addressing a major part of that situation by approving, without a no vote, a multi-year program to raise the city’s water sewer rates.

But it appears much more still needs to be done.

Our guests on INSIDE POLITICS this week are two of major players in the city council trying to deal with this crisis. They are Councilmember at Large Bob Mendes, who heads the Council’s Budget & Finance Committee and At Large member Steve Glover who is a former district member and he served previously on the Metro School Board.

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NOW TO BALANCE THE OPERATING BUDGET

Next Wednesday December 11, New Metro Finance Director Kevin Crumbo is set to present the Cooper administration’s ideas on how to plug the $40 million hole in the city’s operating budget which also has state officials very concerned.

It is pretty clear Mayor Cooper’s plan will include using the extra $20 million the city has received from the Convention Center Commission which is providing funds (10 million) to help with the extra police and other city services needed for downtown events. Convention officials are also now making an annual in-lieu of tax payment ($12.6 million) equal to the value of its property downtown.

But that is not much than half the $40 million needed to balance the operating budget.

Might some of it come from the city’s Barnes Fund used to fund affordable housing projects? That speculation rose this week when the city announced its grant allocations are being cut in half, at least for the first part of this fiscal year.

Note carefully that the stories and news release from the mayor’ office doesn’t say money from the Barnes Fund is going to be used to help plug the hole in the operating budget, but its type of grant funding fits the criteria the Cooper administration says it wants to follow in dealing with this budget shortfall.

Says the Mayor: “Taking current budget pressures into account, a primary objective of the Mayor’s Office is to avoid widespread personnel changes (read layoffs) and interruption of vital city services.”

Even though this reduction in Barnes funding will be disappointing to many affordable housing advocates, the Mayor’s office hopes the cutbacks are temporary and tout the progress already being made. Still housing advocates are quite unhappy, especially given the unexpected, last minute way the Barnes Fund cut was made with almost no advance warning. Reports THE NASHVILLE SCENE.

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THE TENNESSEAN

For its part, the mayor’s office is trying to put a nice face on the situation. Says a mayoral news release: “Mayor Cooper is hopeful that with potential budget savings and efficiencies, Metro can back an additional round of awards in the spring of 2020 using excess fund balance for this fiscal year. “The Barnes Fund is a critical part of making sure that affordable housing is at the center of everything we do in Nashville. Providing housing stability for our children, taking stress off our local workforce, and creating opportunities for seniors to remain in their communities are all goals that help achieve a stronger Nashville for all of us.”

Since inception, the Barnes Fund has invested $37 million in affordable housing development and rehabilitation and has leveraged over $186 million of federal and private funding to construct more than 1,700 housing units.

Ironically using the Barnes Fund was mentioned by finance officials of former Mayor David Briley’s administration if they had been the ones to decide how to cover the budget hole.

Another decision Mayor Cooper made last week was to go ahead with an extra 3% raise for Metro teachers that former Mayor Briley announced during last summer’s mayoral runoff election. Then candidate Cooper was quite critical of the timing of the raise being offered. But two days before Thanksgiving, he said he is ready to move ahead.

There are concerns that some of the funds for the extra raise may be of a one-time, not recurring nature, a financial practice that is one reason the city is in financial difficulties. Remember as well, this raise is only funded for half a fiscal year. The city will have to find a full 12 months of funding for the extra pay in fiscal year 2021 which begins next July.

Of course in analyzing the situation, it may have crossed Mayor Cooper’s mind the enormous controversy and political damage that his mayoral predecessor suffered when Mayor Briley cancelled a 3% pay raise promised by his predecessor Mayor Megan Barry after he took office in the spring of 2018 when she resigned in disgrace.

In terms of both balancing this year’s budget and looking forward to next year’s spending plan, the now three year long struggle to fund and implement placing body cameras on every Metro police officer continues to linger and create controversy.

There also are also questions this week about the timetable for the replacement (or repair) of Metro’s downtown fire hall which was closed for safety reasons and its fire crews and equipment sent to other fire facilities.

A check of Metro’s Capitol Improvements Budget finds no project listed for a new downtown fire hall. There is $12 million listed to “update” the hall, but it is unclear if those funds have been approved by the Metro Council. Given recent issues with some approved capital projects containing inaccurate construction cost estimates, it could raise real questions about when downtown will again have its own fire station.

Opened in 1974, the current downtown hall is reportedly among the oldest in the city. I remember when it first opened and served for several years as the headquarters for the Fire Department as well.

BILL WHITSON

Nashville and the State of Tennessee lost one of it best public servants with the recent passing of Bill Whitson.

For 50 years he was a key figure in both Metro and State governments.

He was the city’s long time Purchasing Director before revitalizing the Water Sewer department under Mayor Richard Fulton. Whitson went to serve in the administration of Governor Ned McWherter as Commissioner of the General Services Department. He returned to city government in interim executive positions with both the Metro Fair Board and the Farmer’s Market, serving until as recently as 2010.

I first got to know Bill while I was a reporter and he took over at the Water & Sewer department. The agency was in shambles. Much as it has been in recent months, the department was in a financial bind. Its plans to expand and maintain water services were at a halt.

Mayor Fulton had dismissed the previous director and sent Whitson over to get things back in order. When Whitson took over, he knew almost no one in the department’s leadership. They had all been key associates of the previous director.

In a short period of time, Bill won their support and united the department behind him. Then working with Metro Finance Director Charlie Cardwell, the two won over support in the Metro Council. They built large majorities in that body, passing a series of rate increases and other plans to extend water and sewer services throughout Davidson County. Much of that infrastructure work laid the necessary groundwork for the growth and development Nashville has enjoyed in recent years.

It all happened because council members and others in Metro liked and trusted Bill Whitson and Charlie Cardwell. I certainly did as a reporter, and even more so when I became their colleague in Metro government in the mid-80s. Losing both of them, along with Mayor Fulton within just the past year, leaves me with sadness, but also with a great sense of pride in what they accomplished.

It almost seems as if the Mayor and Charlie arrived at the pearly gates and got assigned a job they needed help to get done up there. They knew just the person to help them as soon as he arrived.

RIP, Bill Whitson for a job well done.

GETTING GREENER

While focusing on budget issues, Mayor John Cooper is also moving ahead with multiple local initiatives underway to address climate change and sustainability in Nashville and Davidson County. That includes signing the Global Covenant of Mayors as a precursor to participating in the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a coalition of 94 leading cities around the world focused on tackling climate change and driving urban action that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Among those praising the Mayor’s actions in this area is former Tennessee Senator and Vice president Al Gore. “Since Nashville is my home, I am honored to help Mayor Cooper advance our city’s work to address the climate crisis,” said Gore. “He is taking important steps forward that should lead to even greater commitments. He is thinking globally and acting locally -- as we all should.”

Mayor Cooper is third consecutive Nashville mayor to join the Global Covenant of Mayors which was founded in part by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is now a Democratic candidate for President.

Mayor Cooper plans to work toward reducing Nashville’s community-scale emissions 30 percent by 2030 and 70 percent by 2050. To lead by example, CO2-reduction targets for Metro Government will be 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Using Nashville’s most recent emissions inventories as a baseline, these targets were developed upon surveying those adopted by peer and aspirational cities and align with science-based recommendations in the Paris Climate Accord to reduce absolute CO2 emissions by three percent annually until 2050 in order to hold global warming to 2°C.

More specifically, the Cooper administration plans include:

• solar power array installation atop Historic Metro Courthouse to be included in the next Capital Improvements Budget, expanding Metro’s renewable energy portfolio;

• the creation of an “Energy Savings Program” to support energy efficiency efforts in Metro’s general government facilities;

• LEED certifications achieved for Sheriff’s Office Downtown Campus, Metro Police Department Headquarters and Family Safety Center;

• the establishment of a Sustainability Advisory Board to review active proposals as they are being implemented through legislation; and

• the introduction of legislation with Metro Council members to further strengthen tree protections under the Metro Code.

Some environmental groups have been demanding Mayor Cooper announce an emergency locally to deal with global warming issues. They even conducted a sit-in the first day John Cooper was in the mayor’s office.

They are unimpressed with his announcement this week.

A DOWNTOWN PARKS REDEVELOPMENT UPDATE

One issue left on Mayor John Cooper’s desk still be addressed is the future of the Church Street Park across from the downtown Main Library as well as the adjoining Capitol Corridor that extends up to the Legislative Plaza.

Not much concrete is happening. Here is a recap of the efforts and controversies so far.

In recent days developer Tony Giarratana has unveiled a new proposal to try and get things moving, without or without a request for proposal being issued by Metro. Will Mayor Cooper, who opposed earlier efforts by then then Mayor David Briley and Giarratana, have a new or different response now?

PRAYING ABOUT IT ON THE HILL

After a week or so of fussing with each other over who should draft a plan for the state to spend some of its monumentally high reserve funds, money the federal government has been sending to Tennessee to help poor people, all parties (the Lee administration and lawmakers) now say they will work together.

I guess it must be the spirit of the holiday season kicking or just some long overdue political wisdom.

Governor Lee continues to maintain government is not the group that can solve our problems. He says nonprofits and churches should do more along with everyone relying on the power of prayer.

Final appeals and prayers are about all that is left for Tennessee Death Row inmates. Yet another convicted murderer was executed in the electric chair in this week. The state seems to be leading the nation in the number of recent executions with still more on the way next year. So far, like his predecessor Bill Haslam,Governor Lee has declined to use his power to grant a stay or clemency.

Back on the Hill they are fighting over what to name a state building. Some Republicans want to remove the name of Cordell Hull from the office complex where lawmakers have their offices and committee rooms.

Hull is a legendary Tennessee lawmaker who served with distinction in the General Assembly and in Washington where he was also Secretary of State and won the Nobel Peace Prize. But over the years, it seems Mr. Hull’s achievements have been tarnished because he was a “Democrat”, now he is stupidly being belittled as a “socialist.” Really?

These GOP lawmskers want to rename the legislative office complex in honor of former Tennessee Governor Winfield Dunn (1971-1975). Governor Dunn was the first Republican to serve as the state’s chief executive in 50 years, and the first governor I covered on Capitol Hill. He had a distinguished four years in office and certainly deserves to have an important state facility named in his honor. He also is the nicest gentlemen and elected official I have ever known.

As usual, Lt. Governor Randy McNally has the best way to deal with this decision. He can always be counted on to be the adult in the room, or in this case, on the Hill.

But things do remain mysterious at the Capitol over that $4 million economic development fund that popped up in the budget out of seeming nowhere last spring. Lee administration officials are still mute to explain e-mails that indicate more than 60 “commitments” had been made to lawmakers for the funds even though the monies remain frozen with allegations it was a slush fund to reward lawmakers who supported administration’s legislation (vouchers).

Interestingly the one person who is speaking out with his version of how the fund came to be and what it is for, is disgraced former House Speaker Glen Casada who resigned his leadership post earlier this year. The ex-Speaker even says he spoke directly to Governor Lee about the matter, something which the Governor says he has no memory.

Finally on the Hill this past week, state election officials set the candidate field for Tennessee’s March 3 presidential preference primary. It includes 15 Democrats and 3 Republicans. Already at least one Democrat listed on the state’s ballot (Senator Carmela Harris) has dropped out. There will likely be still more casualties before Tennessee voters get their say.

Ever since Tennessee began its primary back in the 1970s, the hope has been the state would play a larger role in the presidential nominating process including the candidates coming here to campaign. For a variety of reasons that hasn’t happened. With 13 other states including this year, California, being part of the March 3 Super Tuesday balloting, prospects for Tennessee to be a major focus in either party don’t look promising again. However, some candidates are investing some modest field resources here.

Of course, the whole presidential process this year seems to be greatly overshadowed by the ongoing impeachment deliberation process now underway in Washington.

SENATOR BLACKBURN’S TWEET

In this new political age of President Donald Trump, attacking an opponent by Twitter post has become standard operating procedure, even if it is also often a sign of the increasing lack of civility in our political discourse.

Interestingly, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn’s recent Twitter attack on one of the witnesses in the impeachment inquiry has provoked several comments, even spreading into the 2020 Senate campaign to fill the seat of Blackburn’s colleague, Tennessee’s senior Senator Lamar Alexander.

There has also been a strong editorial response criticizing Senator Blackburn’s tweet from Bill Freeman, owner of THE NASHVILLE SCENE and NASHVILLE POST.

MORE SIGNS THE TENNESSEE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM IS BROKEN

If the month-long series, BROKEN, produced by NEWSCHANNEL5 Investigates, which aired throughout November, was not enough to convince you how messed up of the juvenile justice system is in Tennessee, maybe the rash of escapes this past week or so from both Metro and state-run local juvenile detention centers will convince you.

The response from officials at the Metro Courthouse and from local law enforcement officials has been strong. It took a few days, but even the local Juvenile Judge is now calling for change.

So, what will change and when?