A few months ago, Rip Ryman, legislative aide to Mayor Phil Bredesen, served on a speakers’ panel for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. In his remarks, Ryman predicted that the mayor wouldn’t ask for another increase in funding for Metro schools in 1998.
But when they were asked about Ryman’s no-tax-increase forecast, other mayoral aides were quick to point out that their fellow staffer was simply offering his own opinion. Bredesen, they said, had a long way to go before deciding what budget proposals he’ll present in the coming year. It was possible, they said, that the mayor would ask for additional funding so that Metro can finally be released from a 42-year-old federal school desegregation order.
“The mayor has always said our school system needed to work toward [freedom from the court order],” Bredesen press secretary Shannon Hunt said, commenting on Ryman’s remarks. “When a plan is agreed upon that accomplishes this, he will take a long, hard look at any monetary components that may be included.”
It wasn’t long after that Chamber meeting that the Metro school board did, in fact, approve a plan to settle with the plaintiffs in the long, drawn-out desegregation lawsuit against the city. In November the school board and the plaintiffs hammered out a deal to bring to an end a lawsuit that’s more than four decades old. The price? A staggering $250 million for a reform program intended to keep schools racially diverse and, at the same time, shorten bus rides by sending students to schools closer to their homes.
The onerous task of finding the $250 million now falls squarely on the shoulders of Metro Council, which is expected to face the issue this year. The result may be partial funding for the reform program. In fact, school desegregation is likely to be at the top of Council’s agenda this year, and it would almost surely require yet another unpopular property tax increase.
Council members are already talking about how much money they may be willing to provide this year for Metro schools, which already receives about 40 percent of the city’s $1 billion budget. Council member-at-large Chris Ferrell says an argument can be made that, if interest rates are still low next summer, that might be a good time to pass the property tax increase necessary to underwrite the bulk of the reforms. With interest rates still low on bonds, Ferrell suggests, Metro could fund a big chunk of the project, getting more for its money than it could after interest rates go back up.
But Ryman was right about one thing: Council won’t be in the mood for another tax increase. Full funding for the reform program might require a tax increase of as much as 30 cents, although Ferrell says he doubts whether Council would be willing to approve that sort of tax hike “on the heels of last year’s [54-cent] property tax increase.” A 10-cent property tax increase might be more realistic, and more palatable to Nashville property owners, who are growing tired of being asked to reach deeper and deeper into their wallets. “That’s what I’m hearing from Council,” Ferrell says. “That definitely will be the issue of the year.”
Don Jones, the Council’s staff director, says he hears other Council members saying they wouldn’t support anything more than a nickle increase in the property tax rate. “It’s just too difficult to have tax increases back to back,” he says.
Stanching the flow
If school desegregation promises to be the issue of the year, Nashville’s growing crime epidemic isn’t far behind. Council will probably have to approve at least some of the reforms that the mayor’s crime commission is expected to recommend later this month. And Council members seem enthusiastic about doing what they can to find solutions to the problem.
“I think the first priority for the Council is going to be a review of, and potential implementation of, the crime commission’s recommendations,” says Council member-at-large Ronnie Steine. Just a week into the new year, Nashville has already witnessed three homicides. If the city continues at that pace through the end of the year, there will be 156 murders in Nashville in 1998.
The mayor has said he’s not particularly interested in high-cost solutions to crime. Metro has continued spending money to hire more police officers and to buy better equipment, but those efforts haven’t seemed to make a dent in the problem.
The crime commission has already begun winnowing down its list of preliminary recommendations. In an evening session Tuesday, commission members reviewed proposals for specific reforms aimed at creating stiffer punishments for offenders and increasing the police department’s ability to deal with drugs and guns.
Possible recommendations include tracing all guns involved in crimes by using federal databases to find out where they were bought, when they were bought, and from whom. The committee also seems to be in general agreement that, when juveniles are found with guns, they should spend meaningful time in jail. One suggestion is that they spend a minimum of 30 days to a maximum of six months in jail, a much stiffer sentence than the community service and 10 days’ detention to which juveniles are now sentenced. A similar proposal may be recommended for adultsa sentence of 30 days to 11 months, 29 days, for illegally possessing a gun.
Crime commission chairman John Seigenthaler says the commission is “close” to recommending “strong, clear” consequences for persons caught possessing illegal weapons.
Other possible recommendations include naming the police chief the “commissioner of public safety” with responsibility for an ongoing crime-prevention program in Metro. Commission members are also discussing the idea of mapping the whereabouts of Nashville’s habitual, repeat offenders and concentrating enforcement in those areas. The group may also recommend that Metro identify repeat offenders for priority prosecution.
While the city at largeand Council in particularwaits on the crime commission’s final recommendations, Ferrell is working on a project that he hopes will help relieve the city’s crime problem by getting rid of the public-housing clusters where drug dealing and violence are often concentrated.
Ferrell says he’s interested in a long-range plan to get rid of Nashville’s large public-housing developments and replace them with scattered units across the city. Metro now operates 18 separate public-housing developments, which contain a total of more than 6,500 public housing units. The Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) has been building scattered-site homes for years, but there are still only 368 scattered-site units in Nashville now.
“One of the problems is that federal funding for [scattered-site housing] has kind of dried up in the current Congress,” Ferrell says. “The two big issues are the cost and where to put them. Everybody seems to be for it, but some people, when you start talking about putting this sort of housing in their neighborhood, that’s when they start to take issue with it.”
Given the cost of about $85,000 per unit, it would be incredibly costly to eliminate large projects and replace them with real homes. But Ferrell says he may propose a pilot project to replace one of the smaller developments.
“I was hoping there would be some model somewhere, but nobody’s done it on a grand scale, not that I’ve been able to find so far,” Ferrell says, noting that “revitalizing urban neighborhoods and reducing crime in those neighborhoods by spreading out low-income housing has got to be a piece” of fighting crime in Nashville.
MDHA director Gerald Nicely says scattered-site homes are effective, and he adds that his agency plans to continue building them, although replacing large developments altogether may be an impossible task. The scattered-site units “have been accepted in the neighborhoods pretty well,” Nicely says. “That’s the better way to go, no question. If we were starting over again, that’s the way we’d do it. Unfortunately, we can’t start all over.”
It’s not a sexy topic, but taxpayers interested in smaller water bills may want to hear more about an upcoming proposal from Council member Phil Ponder. Ponder says he wants Metro to consider contracting with a management firm to run the Metro Water Department.
Ponder wonders why Nashville has such high water rates, compared to cities of similar size. He says any savings that result from a private manager “would have to stay in the Water Department, but they could be used for different things like lowering water bills.”
He plans to ask that Metro solicit proposals “to see what kind of estimates we can get from [management] companies.”
Ponder’s idea is sure to be unpopular with Metro employee unions, who are forever closed to the idea of offering private companies a chance to run a government agency more efficiently. But that opposition might be mitigated by the chance to create meaningful savings for taxpayers. The mayor’s Special Senior Citizens Task Force, which has been studying the needs of elderly citizens in Nashville, has also shown some interest in a property-tax relief program for seniors, making that another issue that could get Council’s attention this year.
“There are people in Nashville literally making the choice between buying [prescription] drugs and food,” Ponder says.
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