Slice and Dice 

At budget time, no cuts are kind

At budget time, no cuts are kind

When the 40 members of Metro Council were inaugurated at the end of last summer, they were thrown into the flames of the Oilers blowout. In just a few months, and in what turned out to have been just one of several votes on the deal, they approved the mayor’s plan to issue up to $150 million in bonds to build the stadium. Shortly thereafter, though, the public’s attention turned to the May 7 referendum on the stadium deal, and Metro Council began to seem irrelevant to the whole pro-sports issue.

With no headline-grabbing Oilers-style deals to hold its attention, Metro Council is now getting back to the more mundane matters of life in Nashville, the sorts of issues that routinely fall on its plate.

It is time for potholes, broken sewer lines and zone changes. It is also time to begin arguing the 1996-97 budget. Several major issues loom on the budget horizon, but this may be a year in which the city stays in a holding pattern. It is next year—the year of the 1997-98 budget—that could promise the big whammy.

Nevertheless, this year’s budget is not a complete snoozer. Pay raises will be a big issue. A lot of attention will also be given to what is known as the city’s “infrastructure.” The other bigger, more complex, more political, issue will be the city’s desegregation plan. It is so huge, complex and political, as a matter of fact, that it will probably remain in hibernation until the dawning of the 1997-98 budget year.

The big payoff

Vice Mayor Jay West predicts that Bredesen is now in the process of drafting “a continuation budget.” This past Monday, Bredesen held the first of his budget hearings, a series of conferences in which he meets with all his department heads and asks them how much money they want. That process continues for several days. Then, before the end of May, the mayor submits a budget. Council has to adopt his budget, or a budget that they have amended, before the end of June.

Ultimately, a budget will be passed. Otherwise, the mayor’s proposed budget goes into effect.

During the interval between the budget hearings and the passage of the budget, the heads of various Metro departments usually bypass the mayor’s office completely and take their requests straight to the Council members. The mayor still has real power in the process. But, since the department heads have civil service protection, and remain in office regardless of who the mayor is, they develop their own political alliances over the years. They simply call up their friends in Metro Council and try to exert their own influence on the budget process.

This year, few observers are anticipating any dramatic developments in the budget. However, the mayor is going to have to deal with pay raises for Metro employees. In 1993, the mayor passed a budget that included a 77-cent property-tax increase which provided money for pay raises, an arena and capital improvements in Metro’s public schools. While the arena and the school money were highly visible projects, the bulk of the tax increase—some two-thirds of it in fact—went to the pay-raise package. The size of the tax increase provided Bredesen with enough money to see Metro employees through three years of pay raises. And it left him, in each of those years, with some playing-around money. Now, however, Bredesen must scramble once again to determine how much to give Metro workers—and where to get the money from.

Insiders anticipate that Bredesen will be able to scrounge up enough money to give them a decent increase for one year. The problem, however, is that that a pay increase will chew up much of the money that he and Metro Council have been using in past years for various other projects, such as the city’s infrastructure. Another problem is that the pay raise will cover only one year. Whatever Bredesen does, he may have to go back to the drawing board for the 1997-98 budget year.

Bredesen has a number of items on his wish list. He wants a new public library. Others want a new, modern county jail. Meanwhile, from Metro Council, he continues to hear the throbbing drumbeat of infrastructure needs. With a status quo budget, funding those projects will be tough.

Duly elected

This year, in many ways, Bredesen must face a new sort of Metro Council. It is a young Council—there are 19 freshmen in all. As a result, this Council seems noteworthy not for its coalitions but for its individuals. Part of that feeling stems from the fact that Council members can only serve two terms now. Many of them are already serving their last terms, and as they stare uncertainly into the prospect of life without a Metro Council parking spot, they may feel little need to create a community with their colleagues. Instead, they may be attempting to plot lucrative exit strategies for themselves.

Metro Council member Horace Johns has been unusually quiet of late. Lawrence Hart and Eric Crafton, meanwhile, seem to have fallen in love with the sounds of their own voices.

Charles Fentress and loyal understudy George Armistead still champion Metro Council’s Republican-oriented, business-backed, Chamber of Commerce coalition. The progressive, liberal goo-goo types, on the other hand, still cluster around honorary egghead Stewart Clifton and the boyishly enthusiastic Chris Ferrell.

Whenever the mayor wants anything done, he still calls on Ronnie Steine to carry his water. Both Bredesen and Steine are rich, well-read, art-loving guys who know a good sauvignon blanc when they see one.

Willis McCallister, one of the city’s few blacks to ever serve as mayor pro tempore, is getting high marks from just about everyone.

Jay West, the current vice mayor, hasn’t rocked the boat too much, and has earned generally positive reviews. At one point he needled the mayor, reportedly claiming that Bredesen spent so little time around the courthouse that he wouldn’t know if the place was falling down. The mayor, showing that he really does care what people say about him in the newspapers, suddenly started musing about running for a third term.

As part of his informal investigation of who does what—and how well—Leo Waters has attended just about every known board and commission meeting in Metropolitan Government. Vic Varallo seems preoccupied with becoming a Republican and running against Joe Haynes for the state Senate. As for David Kleinfelter, nobody knows what the hell he is going to do.

Still, every member of Council is an elected official. Each of them has a constituency. And it is the infrastructure that keep those constituencies riled up and raging.

This year, while catching flak for putting too much money into high-profile projects like the arena and the stadium, Bredesen came up with $30 million that he distributed, like candy, to virtually every Council member in the city. The money went to sidewalks, roads, sewers and other improvements. Thirty million dollars was a big chunk of change, but Bredesen continues to be tarred by critics who suggest that he really doesn’t care about the infrastructure. Count on Bredesen to come up with several millions of dollars from the city’s normal revenue growth; that’s the money that will go toward infrastructure needs. Still, because of the pay-raise problems, he may not have as much money in next year’s budget for infrastructure as he had this year.

Meanwhile, education remains a big issue. It’s also one that has everybody guessing. In Monday’s budget hearings, Bredesen praised Metro Schools Director Richard Benjamin for asking for only a 6 percent budget increase. Nevertheless, in another year, Benjamin may present a budget request that will blow Bredesen’s budget out of the Cumberland River.

Book-learning vs. bookkeeping

In a matter of weeks, the Metro School Board is likely to vote on the “Commitment to the Future,” a plan that calls for integrating Metro schools, allowing students to attend schools that are as close as possible to their homes, and creating a three-tier grade system (K-4, 5-8 and 9-12) to reduce the number of times students are forced to change schools. The Commitment plan has two goals—to upgrade student achievement and to heighten family involvement.

Basically, it’s a way to end busing and to get the city out from under a federally mandated integration plan. Even with that subtext, it has given educators and activists the opportunity to reshape Metro’s school system in radical ways that have nothing to do with desegregation and have everything to do with spending more money on schools.

Metro Council is wary of what is coming. Even though the school board gets to vote on what the plan will look like, it is Metro Council that must fund it. “I think there are some inherent conflicts here,” says West. “I fully support the school board having the right to set their own tax rate.”

The official request for funds will not come for a while. But as Metro Council member and education proponent Ron Turner says, “Council is committed to this, but the large bulk of that will be in next year’s budget.”

Schools. A new library. Another pay-raise package for employees. Big-time infrastructure. A jail. It may take a year, but already we can hear the sound of the tax-increase numbers crunching.

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