Mayor John Cooper’s plan to plug the hole in Metro Nashville’s budget was approved by the state comptroller’s office, and that’s good news. The mayor has been criticized by numerous groups during the process, but his team has nevertheless quickly and decisively identified cost-saving and revenue-generating sources of income that have gone untapped or unrealized in years past.
Cooper has been chided for not presenting his plan to the Metro Council prior to submitting it to the state comptroller’s office, but it is his job to correct this budget shortfall. The Metro Charter clearly spells out that it is the responsibility of the mayor and finance director to prepare and submit each annual budget. The charter also specifically states in Part 1, Article 5, Section 5.03 that “the mayor is authorized to administer, supervise and control all departments created by this Charter.” In addition, Part 1, Article 6, Section 6.09, when discussing the impoundment of funds, says specifically that it is the “duty of the mayor” to impound funds as necessary “to prevent deficit operation.” In other words, it’s the mayor’s duty to keep the books in the black. So the argument that Cooper was not transparent in his actions doesn’t really hold water in my way of thinking. Mayor Cooper and finance director Kevin Crumbo were simply conducting the work required of them by the Metro Charter.
Just a reminder on all this budget back-and-forth: It should be of no surprise to anyone that Nashville’s finances are not a pretty picture. Tennessee comptroller Justin Wilson and his department have issued frank warnings in person and in writing to the previous two mayoral administrations, and just a few weeks ago again informed the Metro Council of the state’s concern about Metro’s untenable fiscal situation. And as Nashville residents, we should be aware that the city’s financial challenges have been a topic of debate in every mayoral campaign and a “discussion” during every budget cycle, and are a frequent topic for every major news outlet.
Had the mayor not received an OK from the state comptroller, Nashville’s finances would become the responsibility of the state, which would have to make the tough decisions we should have already made.
The most important consequence wouldn’t be having the state make the tough decisions. It wouldn’t even be that Nashvillians might have to endure a temporary pause in trash collection, library offerings or city parks services. The most significant consequence of ignoring this budget shortfall would very likely be that it would be covered by putting Metro employees on unpaid leave. We should all remember the problems that unpaid federal employees had to endure during last year’s record-breaking 35 days of our federal government shutdown, which came as the result of the federal-spending-plan showdown between the White House and Congress.
If Cooper and Crumbo had not crafted this plan as approved by the comptroller’s office, the problem of Nashville not having enough money in the bank to cover payroll and operations could very likely have been addressed by sending these folks home without a paycheck for weeks on end.
So I applaud Mayor Cooper and his team for finding a way to stave off the worst of the consequences facing Nashville, its residents and its employees. This was their first financial hurdle to clear. The long challenge is setting Nashville back on the fiscally healthy course of spending only what it earns. Filling this budget shortfall was akin to patching a hole in a sinking ship. If all goes according to plan, the hole is now adequately patched. The real challenge lies in steering the ship away from its initial perilous course — avoid the rocks and get back out into safe waters. That’s the real job facing Mayor Cooper.
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.