The Metro Council debate hasn’t even begun over whether to fund Mayor Phil Bredesen’s proposed new downtown library. But early indications are that the library’s chances are, to put it charitably, not good.
The general feeling among many Council members is that when it comes to Bredesen’s major spending priorities for the upcoming fiscal yearschools, employee pay raises, and a new librarythe mayor might as well be asking for the sun, the moon, and the stars. Funding for any one of the three items would require a property tax increasethe largest, in fact, in Metro history.
Metro Council members are reluctant to be the bad guys in a year when properties have been reappraised. Council members know that the reappraisal process will see values of homes and lots increase an average of about 30 percent, causing property taxes to increase as well. Nevertheless, Council members are talking as if they will grant the mayor the sun and the moonfunding, or at least partial funding, for improved schools and employee raises. The stars may look shiny, but for the moment they don’t seem to be within Metro’s reach. For many Council members, a new library appears to be an impossibility, both financially and politically.
“I’d put [the downtown library] fifth or sixth on the list of priorities for my district,” says Council member Phil Ponder, who represents the Hermitage area. Even though Ponder’s district is serviced only by a bookmobile and does not have any neighborhood libraries, he says it’s more important to open new police precincts as a means of combating crimes such as Nashville’s recent, highly publicized fast-food restaurant murders. Ponder’s district includes both the Captain D’s restaurant and the McDonald’s restaurant where the multiple murders took place.
Other Council members, including Budget and Finance Committee chairman Ronnie Steine, who serves as a Council member-at-large, say the local legislative body will probably be more likely than usual to challenge Bredesen during this summer’s tax-increase debate, since term limits have transformed almost half the Council members into lame ducks. Because they are now limited to two terms, 19 of the Council’s 40 members won’t be allowed to run again when Council elections roll around in 1999.
“There is a far higher likelihood that the Council will put its own mark on the 1997-98 budget than there was four years ago, when [Bredesen] put a property-tax increase on the table,” Steine says.
He also predicts that “there will be a lot more dialogue on the table this year, in part because there’s a greater understanding of the impact [a tax increase] has on taxpayers, and there’s also a Council that’s coming of age with 21 new members. This Council is better able to exercise its own budget.”
According to Steine, Council will be “very straightforward” in its debates about “the needs of the community and the issues.” But he adds that “there’s certainly no given or sure thing that there will be a tax increase this year.”
Steine says it’s to Metro Council’s credit that it has worked with Bredesen during the last few years to approve the arena and the stadium, large projects that would increase the city’s tax base. But, he says, “A large part of the community would like to take a little breather and make sure we have a sound foundation in infrastructure and services to make sure these changes are quality.”
Some Nashvillians, including some Council members, are speculating that Bredesen will ask for the library, even though he knows he doesn’t have Council support for it. That way, Council could say it didn’t give the mayor everything he asked for, a claim that might be useful for those Council members who are still eligible to run for another term.
It’s fair to say Bredesen is no stranger to the idea of unrealistic budget requests. When many Metro department heads submit their annual budget requests to the mayor, they often admit, albeit privately, that they’ve asked for more money than they required. They know that the mayor and the Council probably will not fund the entire request. And many departments in fact don’t get everything they ask for.
While Bredesen says he badly wants a new library for downtown Nashville, it’s clear that the school system has eclipsed the proposed library as his top priority. Ask Bredesen what he wants to leave behind as his legacy to Metro, as his biggest contribution to the city, and he’ll say better public education.
The mayor even turned the recent annual State of Metro addresswhich has traditionally outlined a mayoral laundry list of goals and objectivesinto an intensely focused discussion of schools and education. Speaking last week from a podium on the floor of the new arena, he didn’t talk about development, he didn’t talk about a new library, he didn’t talk about employee pay raises, and he said nothing about professional sports.
What Bredesen did say was that he wanted to employ more teachers, hire more blacks in the public school system, and create a more stringent, teacher-driven curriculum for students in Metro. Many were happy with his decision to make education the single focus of his annual address, but Bredesen also risked alienating some of his Chamber of Commerce audience. Some in the crowd might have wanted to hear more about expansion teams and hotel/motel tax revenues.
Bredesen decided to make education the focus of his speech, and that decision probably lets us know which issue he’s really going to fight for in the Council. Schools are at the top of his agenda. As for the library, it may, like its books, be put on the shelf.
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