Karl Dean’s first budget proposal as mayor of Nashville is a ledger of penny-pinching and pink slips. The $1.576 billion budget, while a slight increase over last year, will have most departments tightening their belts like gastric bypass recipients.
About 200 city employees will be laid off, libraries will cut their hours and the parks department will reduce access to Centennial Sportsplex and Wave Country. Even the fire department—which will receive three shiny new ambulances with employees to drive them—will lose about a half-million dollars and receive less funding for fighting fires.
Despite Dean’s budgetary slashing, the Metro Council has given this budget a warm reception while bestowing sloppy, wet kisses on the mayor and his finance director, Rich Riebeling.
Metro Council member Mike Jameson—who, it should be noted, lives just blocks away from Purcell and has rarely had ideological differences with the former mayor—characterizes Dean as “a breath of fresh air,” while colleague Ronnie Steine gushes that the mayor’s budget is “amazing.”
There are two reasons for this Metro government heavy-petting session. First, in a truly tough budget year, the mayor has kept his campaign promises to fully fund schools and make sure the Metro police force is amply staffed. He’s managed to do this without significant reductions to citizen services, while cutting his own department’s budget, a noteworthy sacrifice. Second, former Mayor Bill Purcell and his finance director David Manning were about as popular with Metro Council members as the homeless are at an Urban Residents Association meeting.
For his part, Metro Council member Charlie Tygard stopped being bitter about Purcell long ago. He’s since moved on to unbridled rage.
“The Purcell/Manning era was, ‘We know what’s best, we don’t need your ideas or input, please don’t bother us,’ ” Tygard says. “I have never felt like I’ve been treated with so little respect,” he says of his dealings with Dean’s predecessor.
Council members say that Purcell and his administration wouldn’t return phone calls, didn’t consult them about legislation and generally treated the council as a nuisance to be endured, rather than a co-equal branch of government.
By contrast, Dean’s style of engagement has melted the council’s trepidation like butter on hot tarmac.
“If I were to call Bill Purcell, depending on the mood and whether or not I’d voted for his legislation, I may or may not get on his calendar,” Jameson says. “If I call Karl Dean, I’ll be on his calendar within 48 hours. It’s just a different atmosphere.”
In just over six months in office, Dean has made a point of meeting every Metro Council member face to face and is already on a second round of such rap sessions.
While it’s well known that Purcell did not suffer fools well—much less 40 Metro Council members—it should be noted that most major legislative initiatives Purcell undertook sailed through Metro’s legislative body.
The former mayor, who is now dean of public service and urban affairs at Tennessee State University, declines to comment on his relationship with the council, saying that it wouldn’t be “good policy or good practice” to do so.
Council member Frank Harrison says Purcell is not the only mayor who successfully passed legislation without seeking advice or input from the council.
When Gov. Phil Bredesen was Nashville’s mayor, “There was very little input [from the council] until after the administration came to us to ask us for our vote,” says Harrison. “We didn’t have much input into the stadium, and we were the people who had to vote on that issue.” He says that the Bredesen administration asked the council to vote in ways that “didn’t coincide with what our constituents wanted. We didn’t have a chance to have a lot of input.”
Many in the council also found a problematic lack of transparency in the Purcell administration, particularly when it came to budgets.
“Maybe there were some feel-good aspects of budgets prepared under David Manning’s tenure, but nobody could ever understand them,” Jameson says. “The internal service fees, the endless obfuscations.”
Dean’s new budget has eliminated some of these fees. Council members have long complained that these fees—which Metro departments pay to one another for various services—made it impossible to determine real costs incurred by a department’s budget.
Some council members say that Purcell and Manning purposely hid service cost increases in budgets to avoid unpopular tax hikes.
“That was another one of the Purcell/Manning tricks,” says Tygard. “They would present a budget to you and say, ‘This budget is based on you raising this rate or this fee.’ ”
“Purcell just did not want to raise taxes,” says another council member who would not speak for attribution. “He had a huge tax increase his first year and water fee raises are incredibly unpopular. Rather than have an incremental increase [of water rates] on an annual or more regular basis, he just put it off, and here it is left to the next guy.”
Now water is about to get more expensive in Nashville.
The Metro water department recently unveiled a plan to start charging property owners a storm water fee based on the amount of “impervious surface” (driveway, roof space, etc.) on their property. The average Metro homeowner will have to shell out an extra $4.98 a month, and some will have to pay close to $7.50 to the water department. This is on top of an impending rate increase that could be significant.
In his defense, Purcell tells the Scene that there was nothing tricky or opaque about the water fees.
“All the fees were debated in the council and passed by the council,” he says. “I would think they’d be highly knowledgeable on the subject.” He adds, “There was very extensive coverage of [the water fees] at the time in all the major papers—that is to say, the dailies.”
Regardless of past budgetary maneuvers, the present year looks lean.
“It’s a tough year,” says one council member of the budget and coming water increases. “We have lived on some practices that may have not been the best fiscal policies, and now we’re going to pay the piper.”
Given these difficult circumstances, the honeymoon between Dean and the council undoubtedly will be tested.
“There’s some who think Karl’s just in his infancy and he’ll learn to be a son of a bitch like everybody else,” Jameson says. “Then there’s some of us that just think he’s a breath of fresh air.”
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