Running on Empty 

Purcell orders cuts, but Metro officials don't see the fat

Purcell orders cuts, but Metro officials don't see the fat

City leaders are in turmoil over Mayor Bill Purcell’s directive for all departments to cut proposed spending by as much as 10 percent. The most outspoken are elected officials who depend on the administration for funding but who don’t work at the pleasure of the mayor, so they can make their protests more openly than Metro’s department heads.

”Bill, please allow me to run my office in the responsible manner that the public trusts me to,“ reads a recent letter to Purcell from Criminal Court Clerk David Torrence. ”A 5-percent to 10-percent cut in my budget would leave me in an untenable position without enough employees to operate my office.“

Torrence added that his office is already working under a 5-percent cut instituted under former Mayor Phil Bredesen.

As it happened, Torrence wrote that letter in lieu of submitting a slashed budget for the upcoming year, only to receive notification from the administration this week that a 5-percent shave to his budget would represent $198,700 and 10 percent would amount to $397,400. He says that means he’d have to eliminate eight or 15 employees, respectively.

”Are you going to run the criminal justice system, or are you going to have anarchy? Our dockets are heavier than they’ve ever been, and right now, I’ve got fewer people to do it with. It just makes you want to throw up your hands,“ Torrence told the Scene.

He says his frustration is exacerbated by the fact that his office produces more revenue than it consumes—a point he made in his letter to Purcell.

”Our operating budget this year is $3.9 million,“ he says. ”We turned over to Metro $4.6 million in court costs and fines, and that’s not including the $1 million the state gets.“

Torrence says his protests don’t come out of disrespect for Purcell. ”I’m not being an adversary here,“ he says. ”I’m not trying to be obstinate about it. I’m just being factual.“

Other Metro officials say their departments are similarly lean. Davidson County Clerk Bill Covington, for instance, has cut his staff by some 30 employees during his years in office.

”You can run certain sections of the government like a business, and we’ve done that. I admire them for trying to tighten this belt as tight as they can get it without impeding the services to the taxpaying public,“ Covington says of the Purcell administration. ”Then, if they do have to go for a tax increase, everyone will know every step was taken.“

Purcell, who campaigned on a platform of improving schools and neighborhoods, has made it clear his administration won’t propose a property tax increase in the city’s upcoming $1 billion budget to be presented to the Metro Council this spring. Mayoral insiders say Purcell believes it would be a political misstep to go to the trough for more money before demonstrating an ability to manage current Metro revenues.

But a property tax increase appears inevitable the following year, which coincides with a countywide reappraisal of Metro properties. Among other initiatives Purcell may want to pursue is a Metro employee pay raise, which city workers won’t see in the upcoming year. The pay raise could almost certainly be funded by the new money generated from a property tax increase.

Covington says the 5-percent cut Bredesen made last year came out of salaries for his office, and he says the same thing would happen again with the new fiscal year beginning July 1 if his budget faces the knife.

”We’ve trimmed each year. There’s no extravagance built in,“ Covington says.

Much like Torrence’s office, Covington’s would lose eight people under the 5-percent scenario and 15 under the 10-percent one.

Metro Trustee Charlie Cardwell, also popularly elected, says funding his office’s $1.4 million budget at current levels is a small price to pay for the $420 million his department collects in taxes each year.

He says he will tell the mayor that any cuts would definitely come from salaries in his office. ”At the same time, I’ll make him aware of the impact it’ll have on collecting property taxes.“

All this talk of eliminating jobs apparently isn’t going unnoticed in city government.

”The process of looking at the potential 10-percent cut in the budget, while useful to the administration in terms of finding out priorities, is causing morale problems among rank-and-file employees,“ Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine says. ”Frankly, the sense I get in talking to department heads and employees is that morale is low. I don’t quibble with the notion of the mayor’s office trying to do everything they can to understand the government quickly, but I do believe that perhaps the 10-percent exercise is a little bit too draconian.“

Meanwhile, Cardwell notes wryly the state’s similar budget woes. ”You know, it’s strange—the federal government is doing allright. Maybe we’re sending too much money up there.“

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