He’s not your typical public official. He talks openly about his past drug use, wears his long, gray hair in a messy ponytail, and believes in living a life with as few possessions as possible. But Bill Ives, who a year ago was willfully living among the inner-city poor, has become a trusted advisor to Metro Finance Director David Manning and a natural favorite among Nashville’s progressive crowd.
”The thing about Bill is that he is not only in touch with the establishment, he is in touch with the people whose needs aren’t being met by the establishment,“ says Karl Meyer, who helps lead the Nashville Greenlands project, a sustainable living experiment that Ives recently took part in. ”He’s a very, very bright man who is going to provide Metro with information that they can use to benefit all people in Nashville, including the poor.“
A fan of The Who and self-described aging hippie who, like others, dabbled in drugs in the Sixties, Ives holds a $62,000-a-year job in Metro’s internal audit division. He reports directly to Manning, crunching numbers on the city’s dizzying array of expenditures.
Right now, Ives is preparing a vital report on the trash-burning Nashville Thermal Transfer Corp. while also playing a key role in helping to hone the city’s comprehensive solid-waste plan. That might not sound all that exciting, but people expect Ives to have a big impact in an area that has long been an embarrassment for the city.
”One of the difficulties Metro has had with solid waste is understanding all the data,“ Manning says. ”Bill is one of the best at analyzing and understanding data that I’ve ever been associated with. He is just brilliant. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known “
This past fall, Ives, who’s 54, and his wife Judy returned from Detroit, where for nearly a year they lived in a Catholic-run home for the needy. It was a grueling, but rewarding time. Having just sold their Bellevue homeand nearly everything in itthey had moved to Detroit to help run a transitional housing program for homeless mothers hoping to save enough money to move into places of their own. Ives also worked in a nearby soup kitchen where he broke up the kinds of violent fights that tend to happen in crowds of hungry, poor, and mentally ill people.
”The first time I saw a knife held to somebody’s throat I almost croaked,“ he confesses.
After about a year, Ives and his wife returned to Nashville. While they enjoyed their time in Detroit, it was essentially a 24-7 kind of job, and the two wanted to spend more time together. Ives, however, needed work, and after a few months, Manning gave him a ring.
Ives has built quite a nice career simply serving as Manning’s right-hand man. From 1988-92, Ives worked as the director of research for the state of Tennessee while Manning was the state’s finance commissioner. After a stint with the Tennessee Hospital Association, Ives went to work for the Columbia/HCA hospital chain. There, he once again reported to Manning, who had left state government by then. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Looking like an odd cross between Dennis Hopper and Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo, Ives talks passionately about the sanctity of the poor and the value of a simple life. Currently, he and his wife live in a small home in Cheatham County, where they often take in homeless people for a few nights.
So yes, there’s certainly some disconnect between Ives’ deeply held progressive principles and his tenure at Columbia/HCA, which has been criticized for running small-town hospitals out of business. The company is also the subject of a nearly endless federal investigation into Medicare billing fraud.
But if his résumé contains some ironies, Ives is quick to reconcile them. ”They are all for the most part businesses,“ he says about for-profit and non-profit hospitals. ”The only difference is one pays taxes and one doesn’t.“
While at Columbia/HCA, Ives was developing a fledgling program to provide prenatal care to poor women. So while he was working for a company renowned for its obsession with profits and growth, he wasn’t your typical corporate hatchet man.
”One of the issues that emerged in these not-for-profit debates was that nonprofits always presented themselves as the charitable community hospital, and that wasn’t always the case,“ he says. ”You take the public hospitals out of the mix and you don’t have a lot of saints left.“
Still, Ives is a tad sensitive about his work for big businesses. Once, while spending time in a monastery (don’t ask), he struck up a lengthy conversation with a nun. When she asked him what how he earned his living, he reluctantly told her he worked for Columbia/HCA. ” ‘Wow,’ “ he recalls her saying. ” ‘That’s almost as bad as working for Dow Chemical.’ “ Turns out, as Ives was forced to confess to the nun, he once worked for Dow Chemical too.
Perhaps because of his varied background, Ives has worked well with Metro’s disenfranchised voices. While preparing his report on the Thermal plant, for instance, Ives called for a meeting with solid-waste activists, a gesture that caught many of them off-guard.
”It was an unusual initiative that has been completely absent from Metro politics in the last 10 years,“ environmentalist Bruce Wood says. With Ives, the unusual is what you come to expect.
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