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Capitol View Commentary: October 25, 2019

Posted: 2:39 PM, Oct 25, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-25 15:39:45-04
Capitol View

WATER SERVICES RATE HIKES GO TO THE METRO COUNCIL; MLS STADIUM DELAY CONTINUES; MAYOR COOPER ESTABLISHES A PUBLIC INTEGRITY TASK FORCE; EXPECTATIONS; CULTURE POLITICS AND RELOCATING TO TENNESSEE; DR JOHN VILE OF MTSU ON INSIDE POLITICS; A BLOCK GRANT WITH A TON OF CASH LEFT OVER AND OTHER STATE ISSUES;

WATER SERVICES RATE HIKES GO TO THE METRO COUNCIL

Under a mandate from the State Comptroller, Metro Water Services officials have submitted a multi-year rate hike proposal for approval by the Metro Council by the end of the year.

The increase rates will be only the second time in 21 years that the cost to local customers have risen. The last increase was 8 years ago (2011). Before that it had been 13 years (1998) when rates were last adjusted. Here’s an infographic from Metro on how much most customers will pay.

In many ways the increase in rates is needed just due to passage of time and inflation. Other reasons also include the need to replace and upgrade the system’s aging infrastructure and meet increasing mandates for water quality.

As for the bottom- line cost of the rate increases. For most residential customers the initial increase in 2020 should be about $9.00 per month and no more than $15 for those with the largest residential water use. There will be additional hikes each year from 2020-2024 (I have not been able to find the exact amounts). There will be also be rate increases in each of the following years after that. They will be 3% or less annually to continue to fund the system.

If you have access to Microsoft Excel, you can go on- line to the Metro Water Services site and calculate your own bill under the new rates. You will need your current water/sewer bill to do this. WPLN

So far, no opposition has emerged to oppose the plan. The increase, including the overall new billing structure for Metro Water Service, and restoring a water infrastructure fee reduced in 2009, will be on first reading in the Metro Council on Tuesday, November 5. Assuming no deferrals, there will be a study session November 13 (on the legislation and with the state about Metro’s overall financial issues. That will be followed by committee considerations and a second reading vote on Tuesday, November 19. A third and final vote would be on Tuesday, December 3. If more time and consideration is needed, the Council does meet one more time during the last month of the year on Tuesday, December 17, in order to meet the state mandate to raise water rates by the end of the year.

Already to put more pressure on metro to act quickly, environmental groups are threatening to sue the city because of the continuing runoff of sewage into the Cumberland River during heavy rains.

MLS STADIUM DELAY CONTINUES

While he was in the Metro Council, new Mayor John Cooper was a staunch opponent of building the city’s new MLS soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds. When he became a mayoral candidate, he told me last April he considered the project “settled business” and would not try and stop the project.

But the day he took office about a month ago, Mayor Cooper began voicing concerns about moving ahead, even as demolition to clear the MLS stadium site was supposed to begin three weeks ago. This week the Mayor’s office offered this statement giving some insight into the Mayor’s concern.

" Mayor Cooper has not signed the demolition contract. This delay in demolition is not about soccer, but rather the extremely complicated financing and site infrastructure concerns that make for a successful project. Before moving ahead with demolition, Mayor Cooper has requested a complete calculation of Metro’s costs and how cost overruns related to infrastructure improvements will be funded."

It is unclear if the Mayor’s concerns mirror complaints by MLS Stadium opponents championed by Metro Councilman At Large Steve Glover. They complain the parking facility for the MLS facility is illegal because it would be built too close to the existing Fairgrounds Speedway. The too-close proximity would also greatly hinder moves to bring NASCAR Racing back to the Speedway and Nashville.

These MLS opponents also have a lawsuit pending in court to stop the MLS Stadium contruction because it violates restrictions in the Metro Charter overwhelmingly approved by voters a few year ago. The lawsuit was dismissed in a local court, but the matter was recently remanded back for more hearings by a higher court.

To raise still more MLS-related questions, Fairgrounds area Councilman Colby Sledge says a last- minute amendment to the stadium deal approved by Council has made it difficult for the MLS team owners and developers to obtain financing. Councilman Sledge indicated he planned to offer Council legislation to fix the issue. But so far, no such bill has been filed.

To summarize: There sure seems to be a lot of uncertainty flying around to even consider the MLS Stadium to be “settled business.” Stay tuned.

Meanwhile another vexing problem Mayor Cooper inherited when he came into office may be getting worse. According to a story by WPLN Nashville Public Radio, the relationship between Metro Police and the city’s new Community Oversight Board is generating still more friction between the groups.

Meanwhile the issue that likely influenced voters to approve the Community oversight Board now sees attorneys for the white Metro Police officer accused of murdering a African American man seeking to move the case out of town.

Mayor Cooper is also continuing to get heat from an environmental group, the Sunrise Movement. The organization wants Nashville to declare an emergency to take action in the battle against climate change. The organization staged a sit-in in Cooper’s office his first day on the job. Now they want his brother, Congressman Jim Cooper to get involved as well.

And for those of you still trying to get your minds around who are all these Coopers, now so prominent and powerful in our local government and politics, here’s a primer.

Finally, in terms of another recurring issue, the Metro Council is poised to consider again a matter that dominated the final weeks and months of the last Council term. Even though the idea was rejected then, legislation is back to ban electric scooters. By the way, then Councilman At Large Cooper voted against the scooter ban last summer.

MAYOR COOPER ESTABLISHES A PUBLIC INTEGRITY TASK FORCE

Continuing his efforts to bring what he sees as needed changes to Metro government, this week (Tuesday) Mayor John Cooper announced a Public Integrity Task Force “to review current practices related to ethics and government transparency.”

The Public Integrity Task Force members are:

• William L. Harbison (Chair) – Member, Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison

• Audrey J. Anderson – Counsel, Bass, Berry & Sims; Former Vice Chancellor, General Counsel and University Secretary, Vanderbilt University

• Martha Boyd – Attorney, Baker Donelson

• Alex Coure – Businessman; Co-Chair, Nashville NAACP Economic Development Committee

• Forrest Harris – President, American Baptist College; Professor, Vanderbilt University Divinity School

• William C. Koch, Jr. – Former Justice, Tennessee Supreme Court; President & Dean, Nashville School of Law

• Don Majors – Former Metro Council Member; Co-Chair, Nashville NAACP Economic Development Committee

• Ron C. Snitker – Executive Director of Financial Services, Waller Lansden

Specifically, Mayor Cooper has directed the task force to examine the need for an independent Inspector General to work with Metro as well as the Office of Internal Audit in identifying and preventing potential fraud and waste in Metro government.

In addition, THE TENNESSEAN reports “the group will also review current Metro contracts, procurement practices, political contributions, and permitted political activities by Metro employees, officials, and vendors and contractors that do work with the city. The group will also review current open meeting and public records policies.”

The Public Integrity Task Force is expected to make its recommendations within 90 business days.

EXPECTATIONS

When Mayor John Cooper campaigned to win the mayor’s race, he talked a lot about providing higher wages to Metro teachers and other city workers. The teacher’s union endorsed Cooper in the runoff election even though he voted against a property tax increase.

New teacher leadership emerged during last year’s budget and tax fight. After staging some successful marches and teacher sickouts, they appear confident they can get more pay for teachers going forward.

Metro School Board member are looking at that as well. In fact, a a recent board retreat they were presented with a study of what it would cost to bring mid-career teachers up to the medium average wage for local workers in Nashville which is $64,000. Brace yourself, the cost to do that says the study is more than $100 million!

It is certainly not surprising Mayor Cooper has not yet stepped up endorse a pay raise of that size. Even with the proposed plan spreading out the salary increases over 4 years, remember, other Metro workers will be looking for similar pay raises to bring them up their medium average local salary.

I say all this to point out the expectations that are soaring among city workers about what electing John Cooper as mayor will mean for their paychecks in the future.

The new mayor says the city needs better financial management, and that if we get the money right, everything else can fall in place.

That will be put to the test between now and next spring when Mayor Cooper will send his first budget and tax levy proposal to the Metro Council. But it also seems clear, even if he changes his stance on a property tax hike, he will also need to start working to manage employee expectations.

There are of course other challenges facing Mayor Cooper and Metro Schools officials. In particular there are questions of equity concerning fundraising efforts by the schools.

In the meantime, the Metro School Board is poised to be slapped down again by state education officials about how it operates its charter schools. The Board has ordered the local Knowledge Academy Charter schools to close by the end of the year. But state officials say the city has acted too quickly and needs to give the Knowledge charter schools more time, placing the schools on probation instead. Metro School Board members disagree.

CULTURE POLITICS AND RELOCATING TO TENNESSEE

It remains highly unlikely Tennessee will be a battleground state next November in the presidential race or that our presidential preference primary will mean all that much next March. But comments by a local official in Sevier County in East Tennessee are kicking up a stir across the state and the nation including calls to boycott Dollywood!?! WVLT THE WASHINGTON POST NEWSCHANNEL 5

By the way the matter being debated in Sevier County when the offensive remarks were made concerned making the county a gun sanctuary. It passed.

Meanwhile, after President Trump changed course about his Doral Resort hosting the G-7 conference of world leaders next year, could the meeting be coming to Tennessee, in particular to Nashville? THE TENNESSEAN is running a speculation story about it.

Speaking of moving things to Tennessee, Senator Marsha Blackburn is part of an effort to move agencies of the federal government out of Washington and into states with economically-distressed regions. Blackburn wants to bring the Department of Education to our state.

Good idea? Maybe. But isn’t it most likely the relocated Education Department will place its headquarters in Nashville or another major Tennessee city such as Memphis, Knoxville or Chattanooga, none of which, by any definition could be considered “economically distressed?”

Finally, in the latest saga of our never ending culture wars, Chattanooga state representative Robin Smith blames the rise in youth suicide on messages coming from the political left.

DR JOHN VILE OF MTSU ON INSIDE POLITICS

As the impeachment probe of President Donald Trump continues to dominate the news in Washington this week, we invite Dr. John Vile, a Professor of Political Science and Dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University, to join us on INSIDE POLITICS. We get his insights and wisdom about where things stand and where we might be headed in this matter.

We also discuss the other big issue in Washington regarding U.S. foreign policy in Syria and Turkey. After getting strong pushback from both Republicans and Democrats last week about his withdrawal of our troops in Syria, the President is now claiming success even with Russia now making military patrols and brokering the peace in that region after it was taken over by Turkey when the President abruptly removed U.S. troops who had been protecting our Kurdish allies.

In the matter of impeachment, Mr. Trump this week got still more GOP pushback, including from our two Senators about the President’s twitter comments in which he called the impeachment process “a lynching.” By the way, I now see headlines and stories about then Senator Joe Biden calling the Clinton impeachment “a partisan lynching “in 1998.

This week President Trump requested more Republican help to fight back against impeachment. There are reports Mr. Trump is rehiring his controversial National Security Advisor Steve Bannon to coordinate anti-impeachment efforts from the White House. GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is alo urging Republicans to fight against the fairness of the impeachment process. To that end, on Wednesday several GOP congressmen tried to crash the closed- door impeachment hearings, even through some of them such as Tennessee Representative Mark Green were already free to attend because they are members of the committees holding the closed door sessions. Another media report raises questions about whether the GOP anti-impeachment moves are also an effort to raise campaign monies. Interestingly this week, the likely Democratic opponent to Congressman Green is pledging to run a positive campaign.

We talk about all this and more with Dr. Vile, so tune in.

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A BLOCK GRANT WITH A TON OF CASH LEFT OVER AND OTHER STATE ISSUES

Kudos to the fiscally-conservative watchdog group the Beacon Center. That organization did the leg work on a breaking story this week that found the state has accumulated $730 million in unused federal block grant funds that is supposed to help poor working families. Reports THE TENNESSEAN: “Tennessee receives $190.9 million each year through the federal government's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Last year, Beacon found the state spent just $71.1 million of that money, or 37% of the annual block grant amount.

The remaining funds are placed in a reserve fund, which as of September had grown to $732.7 million. By contrast, the state just set aside roughly $225 million to bring its general rainy- day reserve fund to a record high of $1.1 billion.”

This situation arises as the administration of Governor Bill Lee and the Republican leadership of the General Assembly want to convert TennCare, the state’s major health program for the needy for over 20 years, into a federal block grant too. The excuses given by these state spokespersons in this Associated Press article shouldn’t give anybody reassurance that TennCare will be any better administered or its money allocated and spent if these funds go to a block grant program. The reserve fund for this significantly unused block grant is almost as large as the state’s entire rainy -day fund, and there seems to be no plan or strategy to use the reserve monies? Given how low Tennessee ranks nationally in terms of helping our needy citizens meet the challenges of living in poverty in our state, surely we can do better. But Governor Bill Lee on Thursday defended how his administration is handling the matter.

As for Governor Lee, the day before the story broke, I heard him speak to Nashville’s Downtown Rotary Club. In his remarks he bragged about the state’s stellar bond rating, its high level of fiscal management and the size of its rainy- day fund.

The appearance by the Governor was a return to a civic club he has belonged to for over 20 years. Ironically, it was his first time back because he was so busy on the campaign trail while running for office in 2018, he couldn’t find any Monday club meeting date he could make it to speak to the group. During his remarks Monday, Governor Lee did reinforce the pressing need to improve the state’s dismal rankings in terms of its citizens’ health.

On Thursday, it was announced that in the wake of recent statewide public hearings on the TennCare block grant proposal, changes are being made and more are expected. In fact, the public hearings generated 17,000 comments which the state is now reviewing.

While health care issues continue to create challenges for Tennessee, other issues that have bedeviled previous administrations continue to crop up. That includes at the drivers’ licenses offices of the Tennessee Department of Safety. As they say to err is human, to really mess things up (and back up the lines) it takes a computer or a faulty software update.

Another financial fund that continues to baffle top state leaders is $4 million in economic development monies that almost nobody knows how it got in the budget or for what purpose. For that reason, none of the money is being allocated to be spent. But disgraced former Speaker of the House Glen Casada says he knows what it is for and he told the Associated Press about it.

Despite resigning his leadership post, Casada remains a member of the House representing Williamson County. He has begun a new “outside job” helping several House members and others raise campaign funds and hold events. He told THE TENNESSEAN next year he may also “start a nonprofit organization aimed at outreach efforts to recruit those in minority communities to be involved in conservative politics.”

Finally, with a legislative- inspired lawsuit to end Tennessee’s involvement to bring refugees to the state, facing a potential legal dead end, might Governor Lee take up President Trump’s offer to opt out of the refugee program without going to court? While Tennessee accepting the President’s offer, is bound to be challenged legally, the Governor says it is under consideration.