Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Council Burns a Bridge in the Gulch, Advances HCA Incentives

Posted By on Wed, Feb 19, 2014 at 8:33 AM

What are we to make of Tuesday night's Metro Council meeting?

After two and a half hours, including more sustained debate than has broken out at any meeting in recent memory, it wasn't exactly clear.

Early on in the proceedings, the council gave preliminary approval to a $66 million incentive package for HCA. It's almost identical to the package offered to the company in December 2012, in connection with the company's plans for a site on West End that later fell through. Back then, the incentives did stir some debate, but they eventually passed with only one opposing vote. Tuesday night, the new package, for HCA's new North Gulch site, advanced quickly with nary a word, except for Councilman Ronnie Steine's introduction in which he stated that "there are few better corporate citizens than HCA."

The council also advanced, on first reading, Mayor Karl Dean's proposal to privatize two senior care facilities in Bordeaux. (More on that in this week's print issue.) So far, there hasn't been any outspoken opposition to the plan from council members, but it still requires two more votes.

The rest of the meeting, however, was fraught with heated, albeit occasionally meandering, debate about fiscal responsibility and priorities.

Most notably, the mayor's plans to acquire land for a pedestrian bridge connecting the Gulch and SoBro was met with apparently unexpected opposition.

A long line of council members, including Phil Claiborne, Bruce Stanley, Steve Glover, Charlie Tygard and Emily Evans, all spoke against the bridge, which is estimated to cost between $15 million and $16 million.

Claiborne, who frequently reminded his colleagues of that price tag and the fact that it would only be paying for 700 feet of bridge, said he couldn't vote for such an expenditure while the rest of the county waited "on a diet" for neighborhood sidewalk needs to be addressed.

Evans, referring to needed sidewalks in her own district, called it "one of the most outrageous proposals I've seen.," while Tygard informed members that the cost of the proposed bridge was four times the annual budget for sidewalk projects in their districts.

Visibly taken aback by the response, Councilwoman Erica Gilmore, the bill's sponsor, begrudgingly agreed to an indefinite deferral, but not before offering a defense of the project — connectivity, walkability, etc. She also suggested, as she did during debate over the Sulphur Dell ballpark, that if members wanted her to support their initiatives, they needed to support hers.

This reporter didn't have a stopwatch running, but the debate over the Gulch bridge might have lasted longer than any single debate about the $65 million stadium project for the Nashville Sounds.

Also on the docket earlier Tuesday night were proposals from Tygard that would create dedicated funding sources for mass transit in the city. One of the proposals would set up a countywide referendum on a tax increase, part of which would go to transit. Tygard has said that and other proposals are merely aimed at starting a discussion on how the city will fund mass transit in the long term. Dedicated funding streams are the preferred method for many transit advocates, and one Tygard says is recommended by other cities. (The Dean administration, for its part, says it already knows how transit projects like The Amp will be funded going forward: "through fare collections and the Metro budget.")

The council eventually voted to defer Tygard's proposals, as he had planned, delaying them until the budget process begins. But not before Steine attempted to put them down with a tabling motion that he admitted was "an unusual thing to do."

Steine said he agreed that the community needed to have a dialogue about mass transportation and dedicated funding sources — but in his experience, proposing tax increases is a way to end discussion, not start it.

"I ask you tonight not to have to go through the next several months of hanging over our head the possibility that this body is going to put a referenda on the ballot to raise taxes," he said.

In several statements, with other members yielding their time to allow him to continue, Tygard defended his approach, getting more riled up than is typical for the veteran council member.

"I ask you, council members, has there been any conversation to this point about a dedicated funding source for mass transit?" Tygard said. "There's been absolutely no discussion. The only way for this body — we can call meetings, and we'll get green shirts and red shirts up here screaming and yelling. Mass transit's not free."

"If taxes aren't the way, if there's this magical solution out there, somebody bring it forward!" Tygard added.

Steine's tabling motion ultimately failed with 13 voting for it and 22 voting against it.

Later on, the meeting crawled toward adjournment in disarray, with members walking around the chamber, carrying on various discussions, and Councilman Chris Harmon — who was sitting in for the absent Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors — repeatedly turning to the gavel in an attempt to maintain order. At one point, with only 27 members left in the chamber, Harmon asked the remaining members to stay put so that the council could finish its agenda without losing a quorum.

On Twitter last night, our former colleague at The City Paper, Friend of Pith and Tennessean reporter Joey Garrison wondered whether the council had made a statement, questioning the Dean administration's focus on "big-ticket projects."

Maybe. Maybe not.

Last night, the council advanced one of the largest corporate incentive packages — including tax breaks and cash payments — in Nashville history. It also worked itself into a frenzy over a $15 million to $16 million bridge. And all this two months after it quickly approved $65 million of debt to build a baseball stadium for a team that loses money every year.

Is the council beginning to act as a check to the city's executive branch? Is it starting to ask more questions about big-ticket items for which there might not be a big need? It's possible. But for now, the clearest message the council is sending is the one it delivered toward the end of last night's meeting: an aimless and confusing murmur coming from 40 desks — a third of them empty.

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