Wednesday, February 7, 2018

What happened at the Feb. 6th Council meeting: investigating the mayor, Tax 4 Tracks with $8.9B price tag, even more $ for General Hospital.

 by Rod Williams - The council meeting of February 6th had lots of interesting discussion involving several very important issues. I will summarize those first. If you are going to actually watch the full meeting you need an agenda and the council staff analysis. Without a program you really will not know what is going on. To access the agenda, staff analysis and my commentary on the agenda, follow this link.

Council moves to investigate the mayor.
Resolution 1039 was a late resolution to investigate Mayor Barry and was approved by a roll call vote.
An objection from two members could have stopped the resolution from being considered. Several members speak in favor of the resolution stressing the obligation of the legislative branch of the government to protect the tax payers interest. Opponents argue that the TBI and other bodies are investigation the mayor and this investigation is unnecessary. Those arguments, I thought, were very lame and they were adequately countered. The motion required 30 votes to pass and got the sufficient number of votes. The investigation will be limited in scope and look at the issue of miss use of public funds. To watch the debate see time stamp 1:41:24 to 2:28:26. See a following post on this blog for the result of the roll call vote of 30 to 7.

Tax for Tracks passes, headed to referendum with a $8.9 Billion price tag language.

Bill BL2017-1031  passed on third and final reading to adopt  the Mayor's transit improvement program and place the plan on a May 1, 2018 ballot referendum. However, an amendment was passed that would add to the referendum verbiage that the real cost of the program was $8.952 billion. The vote on the transparency amendment was 21 in favor, 16 opposed and one abstention. I will post the result of the roll call vote in a following post on this blog.

The referendum will have voters decide on increases to not only the sales tax but three additional taxes. The four taxes to fund the project are these:
  • Increasing the sales tax rate from 9.25% to 9.75% in July 2018 and to 10.25% percent in 2023. This would be the highest sales tax rate in the nation.
  • A surcharge on the hotel-motel tax which by 2023 would be 6.375%, one of the highest in the nation.
  • A 20% surcharge added to the local car rental tax making that tax 1.2%.
  • A 20 percent increase in the city’s business and excise tax.
The bill passed by a vote of 34 in favor, 2 against and 2 abstentions. The two no votes came from council members Robert Swope and Holly Huezo. Council members Angie Henderson and Dave Rosenberg abstained from voting. The discussion is worth viewing. To view the discussion see timestamp 2:38:06 to 3:19:13 in the video. 

Even More money approved for General Hospital. $17,141,000.
Resolution RS2018-1032  which would appropriate an additional $13,231,000 to support General Hospital is substituted to increase the funding to $17.14 million. This is still short of the additional $19.7 million the hospital says it needs. The extra $3.9 million in the substitute is coming from the city's "undesignated fund balance," which serves as a rainy day fund for the city. Of the $13.2 million in the original resolution, $10.83 million comes from the undesignated fund balance of the General Fund and the remaining $2.4 million comes from impounded funds from six different expenditure accounts including an account for storm water management and an account to incentivize the construction of affordable housing. The total now to come out of the undesignated fund balance will reduce that fund balance to less than five percent of the city's general operating budget. This is irresponsible and will be the first time thus has happened in nearly a decade.

The substitute removes the hiring freeze called for in the original resolution and also calls for the creation of a strategic planning committee to consider the future of General Hospital. For a good understanding of this issue, you may want to watch the video and see staff attorney Jamison's explanation. For a deep understanding of this complicated issue you may want to watch the Budget and Finance Committee meeting of Monday where the Council spend three hours garbling with this issue and drafting the substitute. The Council approved the resolution as substituted by a vote of 36 in favor, none opposed and two abstentions. To view the discussion on the resolution see the video at timestamp 59.31 to 1:48:42.

Earlier this year, the mayor showed courage in proposing to change General Hospital from a hospital to an outpatient facility but then she buckled to pressure and retreated. Since that did not happen, if I were serving in the Council, I would have supported this resolution. Council has little choice but to spend this money. Until such time as we close General Hospital it will continue to be a drain on the city's resources. If kept open, it must pays its employees and pay its bills.

General Hospital has been a money pit for generations. In the last two years the Hospital has received $26 million in emergency funding in addition to a $35 million annual subsidy from the Metro Council.  As reported in The Tennessean recently, a recent audit found that the hospital, "failed at basic bookkeeping, unable to keep track of patient payments and major expenses."

While poor management is obviously a problem, the real problem with Nashville General is that  no one wants to go there.  Metro jail inmates without insurance needing hospitalization have no choice and are sent to General and there is a financial incentive for Metro employees to use General but it still cannot fill its beds. The facility is  licensed for 150 beds, staffed for 114 and has an average of 44 beds filled a day. Metro General should have been closed fifty years ago.  Ever since the advent of Medicaid there has been no need for a city charity hospital and the reason it has been kept open is purely political. There is no federal or state law or metro charter provision requiring the city to operate a charity hospital. The reason General Hospital is kept open is because it is a source of prestige for the Black community.

While this action puts a band-aid on the problem of General Hospital, the problem does not go away. This shifting of funding and dangerously dipping into the undesignated fund balance will complicate the upcoming development of a city budget. I fear the solution will be a tax increase.

There was another bill concerning General Hospital,  Bill BL2018-1055 on second reading which would protect General Hospital from being downgraded to an out patient facility only and would provide that  until June 30, 2019, the mayor may not terminate any agreement between Metro and the Metro Hospital Authority without prior approval of the Metro Council by resolution. This bill also passed, passing by a voice vote. While I would have reluctantly supported the resolution, if I had a vote, I would have opposed the bill.

In Other Council Action
Following the prayer and pledge, the first order of business is confirmation of mayoral appointments to boards and commissions. No surprises and no drama. One person withdrew his name from consideration and the others were approved. Bills on First Reading pass by a single vote without discussion as is the norm.

Public hearing on zoning and planning bills bore me, as I am sure they do most people not directly affected. I don't even try to form an opinion on each of these bills and zip though that part of the council meeting at double speed. I am calling attention to those that generated controversy or for some other reason I found of interest.
Resolution RS2018-999  is a resolution that approved a beer permit for an establishment that already has a liquor license.  This is for an establishment in Germantown. Concern is expressed that this will be a beer garden type establishment that will generate a lot of business and is out of character for the community. It is approved.
Bill BL2018-1043  is a bill disapproved by the Planning Commission to rezone property at 5200 Nolensville Pike in Councilman Davette Blalock's district. On final reading a disapproved bill requires 27 votes. Only one person speaks against it. There is a roll call vote of 26 in favor, 3 opposed and 6 abstentions.
Bill BL2018-1051  removes the Adult Entertainment Overlay for a bunch of parcels in Councilman O'Connel's district. The Planning Commission has approved the bill so apparently there are no legal problems with doing this. No one speaks on it and it passes.
There are 17 resolution on the agenda and they are all routine things such as accepting grants, paying settlements and approving of signs to overhang the right of way. These are the only two of interest:
Resolution RS2018-1022  spends $15.3 million out of the General Fund Reserve Fund (4% Fund) for various purchases for 15 departments. It includes $534,000 for Municipal Auditorium. With the large number of music venue's and sports facilities in town of various sizes, I question if the city still needs to be in the auditorium business. The bill is amended to take out the project that would fund the street salt bin relocation located in west Nashville over concern about the city's plan for the future use of that property. Apparently members of the Council were not consulted about this prior to the filing of the resolution. The resolution passes.

Resolution RS2018-1038 is a memorizing resolution requesting the Tennessee Department of Transportation to consider neighbors’ concerns and prioritize certain features during the improvements scheduled along Interstate 440.  Included in this resolution is a request that more sound barriers be build along 1-440. As I understand it, I-440 is to have an additional lane added going in both directions.  When I-440 was finally approved after being delayed for years it was supposed to be a "parkway." Originally trucks were not going to be allowed to use it, but that did not last long. In my view, no changes should be allowed to be made to I-440 without mitigating the effect of those changes to the neighborhoods though which this freeway passes. A resolution of this nature has no legal impact and just expresses an opinion. It passes on the consent agenda. 
 Bill BL2017-790 on second reading would revisit the issue of insurance benefits provided to previous members of the Metro Council.This is deferred one meeting.

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