As we celebrate the beginning of a new year, it is fitting that we look toward critical issues on the horizon. Our budget, infrastructure, schools and public safety all require urgent attention and reconciliation
Nashville cannot afford another unbalanced budget. The upcoming budget is an important one for Mayor Cooper — his first to determine where cuts are warranted, what capital-improvement projects are worth investing in, and what debt can be avoided or wiped out. Nashville’s budget has grown from $1.54 billion in FY2010 to $2.33 billion this year — an increase in spending of $789 million, or more than 50 percent. Mayor Cooper and his team must identify both mismanaged services and underperforming assets that would create additional revenue if maximized.
One revenue stream the Metro Council has recently voted to increase: the fees for Metro water and sewer services. According to the recent comptroller’s report to the council, Metro Water Services has been seriously underfunded for many years and hasn’t seen a commensurate fee increase in nearly a decade. A fee increase would compensate for the increase in services, debt burden or infrastructure needs. This increase should help tremendously. Potable water, safe and hygienic wastewater treatment — these are needs that all citizens should be able to rely on their government to provide.
Our roadways and bridges are also in need of attention and care. Even six years ago, our infrastructure needs were essentially all identified as less than adequate by the 2013 Infrastructure Report prepared for the NashvilleNext project by the Urban Land Institute. The report reviewed nine separate categories of infrastructure needs and rated the city as below adequate in eight of the nine categories. The one spot of good news about our stable energy services was tucked between the much more grim outlooks for roads and stormwater services. Even more disconcerting is the fact that the report’s call to action — which states that “the systems are strained and future growth will rely on an aging and limited infrastructure platform” — is already 6 years old.
While a city’s infrastructure and budget needs are basic necessities for citizens, public education is arguably the most vital. Our public schools have found it challenging to thrive under the state’s Basic Education Plan for funding, and during multiple budgets that saw fewer resources available to our schools. Despite these budgetary constraints, the people in our schools continue to work hard every day to provide our children with the education necessary for stable career paths and a solid workforce for our business and industrial sectors. With a total student count of more than 86,000, MNPS enrollment is the second-largest in Tennessee (Shelby County schools have 111,000 students). The costs associated with educating, feeding, transporting and supporting the emotional, cognitive and physical needs of the children entrusted to the school system are the largest part of our annual budget.
Another city service that needs our scrutiny is our public safety operations. Too often we pay attention to our public safety departments when there is a tragedy, like the fatal stabbing that occurred at a Nashville bar over the holidays. It was such a devastating outcome for so many — from the families of the victims with such long ties to Middle Tennessee, to the communities and friends who mourn the loss of Clayton Beathard and Paul Trapeni III. We appreciate the swift response from law enforcement to apprehend the person charged with the crime. But we know that our growing city, population and tourists dictate further conversations about ensuring public safety.
We all look forward to the improvement and stabilization of these four critical city needs. Our budget, infrastructure, schools and public safety have risen to the top of the list for 2020. Working together, we can all see gradual and lasting improvements in every category. As Brad Paisley tweeted a decade ago: “Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365-page book. Write a good one.”
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.