Tough sledding. A rough patch. Stuck in the briar patch. Mired in deep doo-doo.
Bill Purcell: a man who has had a tough six months and could very well have more ahead.
This week, Purcell released his proposed $1.35 billion budget for the next fiscal year. With warning signs flashing on the horizon, Purcell has had to cut. Sniffing blood in the waters, every one of his critics has pounced on his East Nashville carcass.
The trouble didn't begin yesterday. It began about six months ago, when Purcell and his dark czar of the accounting arts, David Manning, predicted that cuts of up to $100 million were possible, even probable. Departments were asked to slash anywhere from 10 to 15 percent. None were to be spared. Even schools.
It was the schools budget, actually, that began the mayor's bloodletting. Bill Purcell has long enjoyed a core level of support that is both deep and wide among public education backers. It dates to his days in the state legislature, where he was at ground zero for some of Tennessee's biggest education initiatives. But from January through April, after suggesting schools take a "hit" of $15 million or so, he fractured the longstanding loyalty he's enjoyed among the Volvo-driving, magnet school crowd. (The cut in the schools budget is simply a decrease in what had been earlier proposed for next fiscal year; in other words, the schools operating budget isn't actually being slashed so much as it isn't being increased much. It will go from $503 million now to $510 million next fiscal year.)
In many ways, the beast that bit the mayor was an animal he had fed, nurtured and trained. Not too long ago, there wasn't much of a public education constituency in Nashville, no group of regular Joes and Janes who could be counted on to support tax increases to fund education. Purcell, however, helped build one: When he passed the second largest property tax increase in the city's history three years ago, much of it went to schools. The formal marriage between Purcell and education backers was consummated.
But next year, schools aren't going to receive anywhere near what had earlier been projected. And these core Purcell supporters have put out the word that they're not pleased. While the mayor probably thought he was well-advised to let everyone know early that the cuts were coming, the effect was instead a Chinese water-torture treatment of negative news and harsh rebuttals. It went on for weeks and months. Media outlets aired numerous angles to the storynone of them positive. They ranged from Manning's secret raid on a rainy day fund for last year's schools budget to reports of bad relationships between the city's chief executive and the school board. Along the way, the mayor took his political licks.
Other problems have contributed to making this the season of Purcell's discontent:
♦ Because of term limits, he's forced to deal with one of the more inexperienced and ignorant city legislatures we can possibly imagine. Relations with the Metro Council, therefore, are poor, and lobbying the body has grown increasingly difficult.
♦ A jail construction project has gone well over budget. Sheriff Daron Hall, who oversees the city's jail, is blaming the Purcell administration's own consultant for the cost overruns.
♦ The mayor's relations with the Nashville Sounds, which would like to develop the riverfront property occupied by the former Thermal Transfer Plant, have been strained at best. Because it thinks Purcell has not pursued potential development deals there swiftly enough, the Metro Council has created its own committee to explore development options.
And there you have it. The man obviously faces challenging times. And, actually, it's about time. Perhaps more than any Nashville mayor in recent political history, Purcell has been largely spared of collective criticism from the body politic. Now his dark day is here.
Bill Purcell is a man who writes a message and sticks to it. When he presents his budget this week, he will rightfully claim the city is still making capital improvements even as it is forced to cut back its operating budgets. (For example, $64 million is being set aside for new schools and education needs in the capital plan.) But many voters have written their own script and are sticking with it too. Their script asks, "How is it we passed a huge property tax increase three years ago, but we're now having to make huge cuts?"
Purcell never adequately answered that fundamental question. And now everyone is piling on.
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