Where's the Pork? 

Council members bemoan one aspect of the mayor's spending plan

Council members bemoan one aspect of the mayor's spending plan

If you need proof of the old adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of the time,” look no further than Mayor Bill Purcell’s proposed $171 million capital spending plan. Through a mix of government bonds and state and federal grants, Purcell’s initiative funds sorely needed repairs to Metro schools as well as new sidewalks, public safety programs, and even playground equipment. And most importantly, it doesn’t require Council members to pass a tax increase.

Nevertheless, a few Council members have quietly grumbled about Purcell’s seemingly no-lose initiative. Some claim they need more time to review the plan, while others suggest that it usurps their traditional role of doling out, well, pork.

“In the past, there has been a tradition of giving district Council members money to pay for things at their own discretion,” says at-large Council member David Briley, who likes the plan overall. “This does not have money like that. There is no opportunity for any Council member to do project A, B, and C. I believe everything goes through the mayor’s office.”

Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips concedes that the Purcell administration is deviating from the traditional process. He says dividing money among the 35 district Council members for individual projects was a “haphazard” approach and prevented the city from ushering in projects in a comprehensive and consistent manner. “The old way was good in terms of pork, but what you end up with is a sidewalk that goes from nowhere to nowhere,” he says. “We wanted to do things in a logical progression where we can accomplish some meaningful improvements.”

The lack of district goodies under the mayor’s plan may have rankled a few Council members, but that alone won’t sink the plan or even throw it off track. Council members Don Majors and Melvin Black, both supporters of Purcell, were said to be stewing that the mayor’s plan neglected to fund their own pet projects: a community center and police precinct, respectively. But they both say they wholeheartedly support the initiative. In fact, Majors, who appeared in televised campaign ads for Purcell last summer, hints that the very fact that his project is not funded shows that the mayor won’t give and take on the basis of political loyalties.

“We’re not going to play favorites like we did with the previous administration,” says Majors, who spent the better part of his first term sniping at Mayor Phil Bredesen’s various budgets and initiatives. “This is not politics as usual.”

In some cases, however, it clearly is. Much like other mayors before him, Purcell unloaded a rather complicated and significant spending plan onto the Council without giving them much time to mull over its finer points. A few Council members have suggested deferring the plan, which goes before the body next week in the form of three separate resolutions.

“By and large it looks like a good package, but I think we need more than two weeks to review it,” says at-large Council member Leo Waters. Fellow at-large member Chris Ferrell adds, “$170 million is a lot of money for the Council to spend, and we should give it the kind of consideration that an expenditure of this magnitude merits.”

Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine goes so far as to predict the Council will wait until next month to vote on the spending plan and then might even try to alter part of it. “If I had to guess, I would say that it will be deferred for at least one meeting,” he says. “For something of this size, I would be surprised if the Council did not put its imprint on it with an amendment or two.”

Realizing perhaps that any delay in approving the mayor’s plan increases the chances of it being diluted, Phillips points to Metro’s urgent capital needs. Leaking school roofs, he notes, need to be fixed. Any kind of Council hand-wringing over that issue, for example, might not be very well received. “We just don’t see any need to defer something that we can start moving forward on,” he says. “We can issue the first bond in a matter of a few weeks and start repairing schools shortly after that. There’s no need for us to put a bucket in any school classrooms. I can’t imagine the Council would want the kids in this community putting up with it for longer than necessary.”

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