Saturday, August 17, 2019

Mayor David Briley tells Metro departments to find "savings" in their already tight budgets to fill the $30M budget gap.

by Rod Williams - Mayor David Briley  has directed Metro Departments to find "savings" in their already tight budgets. Normally, I would be one to think that bloated government could be cut without harming public safety and that cuts could be made without much harm, but not this time. While the local media has not chosen to treat it as a crisis, we have one.

Our police department is understaffed by 180 officers.  If one has a non-emergency need to report a crime, it may be days before one can get a response. Firetrucks are running with less than the  optimum number of fire fighters and as the population of Nashville has grown, we have only built one new fire hall in twenty years. We have a terrible problem recruiting and retaining teachers and our schools are failing. Codes inspections take days. Our infrastructure is crumbling.

I do not have the stats, but if I headed a media outlet with staff, I would investigate and  find out what is the fire department response time compared to a best practices and previous periods. If I were a Metro Councilman, I would ask the question. I also would want to know what happens when a fireman calls in sick. Is the public at risk? I would want to know average police response time to non-emergency crime reports. I would want statistics on teacher recruitment and retention. I know things are bad, but I wish had had a measure of just how bad.

What prompted this most recent call for departments to "find savings," is the letter from the Comptroller of the Treasury putting Nashville on notice that our budget did not meet acceptable standards. Basically it did not balance and our reserve funds are too low. Cities are required to pass a balanced budget; Nashville did not. Mayor Briley counted as revenue $30 million to be received from the sale of Metro's parking meter operation. When the plan to privatize parking met wide spread opposition, Briley pulled the plug on the plan but did not change his budget revenue projections.

It is my view that Metro is not underfunded. We have a spending problem; not a revenue problem. The current budget is $2,331,618,000, which is a 4.55% increase over the last years budget. We are spending $101,517,400 more than the previous year.  Metro is just inefficient.  I suspect we are bloated with unnecessary layers of consulting engineers in public works and that many department have too many administrative levels. Also, we spend a lot on non-essentials. 

This is the second year in a row, that Mayor Briley has called upon department to "find savings." The difference is that last year, he called on them to find savings before the budget was adopted, not afterwords. There are saving to be found. We could close General Hospital and save almost $50 million a year. It is not required by State law or Metro Charter, poor people have other options, and the hospital cannot fill its beds. Former Mayor Megan Barry proposed closing it but did not put much effort into the proposal.  She seems to have been distracted by the sordid affair she was having with her body guard and did not do her homework  or put  political capital on the line, the Council balked and the closing did not happen.

We could abolish the Human Relations Commission and save half-a-million dollars. This agency does almost nothing of value. The few things they do of value could easily be done by other agencies. This agency's primary function seems to be to promote political correctness. 

Rather than cuts to police and fire, we could close the libraries one day a week. I don't know how much that would save but it would be substantial.  The problem with this is that then the people would notice. You can hide cuts to the fire department and no one notices but if you close libraries one day a week people will notice. We could make judicious cuts without harming public safety but it is easier to make across the board cuts.

I do not know if what Briley is proposing to do is legal. It certainly does not seem proper.  Budgets are adopted after a process that involves administrative budget "discussions," (formerly called budget hearing), Council budget hearings, a public hearing, and legislative debate and then adoption.  It certainly does not seem proper to change the budget without the public transparency and input and the legislative process.  

If the city passes a budget and then we have a disaster that increases cost or if we have an economic downturn that results in less revenue, then a mayor does have the authority to shift funding.  This is not that situation however.  The mayor proposed a budget that he knew was $30 short of revenue.
The Council should have balked at passing it, but our system of government provides for a very weak council. There was not much the Council could do. They cannot change the revenue projections they are given. Under our charter, if the Council does not pass the mayor's budget and does not pass a  substitute budget, the budget of the mayor becomes the city's budget automatically.  While the Council could have made noise they did not have the power to make the mayor pass a balanced budget. This unbalance budget adopted by the city is clearly the fault of the mayor.  

Stay tuned to see what happens next.  If the Mayor cuts $30 million from the budget he may satisfy the Comptroller, but there may be law suits to challenge his authority to arbitrarily change a budget once it is passed.  While department heads work for the mayor and are likely to comply with his request for cuts, the Police and Fireman's unions will likely balk. Those constitutional officers such as County Court Clerk and Trustee and Sheriff are elected by they people and do not work for the mayor. They may not accept the directive to "find savings."  Also, we are in the midst of a mayoral elections. If Cooper will exploit it, and I think he should, he can show what an incompetent is David Bailey.

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