6 Things We Learned About Nashville Government From This Week's Budget Talks | Nashville Public Radio

6 Things We Learned About Nashville Government From This Week's Budget Talks

It was quite a sprint — and Metro has now concluded its budget hearings, which will inform the budget that's due soon from Mayor David Briley.

The message this year was one of fiscal restraint, and all but a few departments presented “status quo” budgets. (City financial officials have asked department leaders to trim wherever possible before the end of the current fiscal year).

Still, the hearings provide brisk snapshots of how Metro has spent tax dollars in the past year, and what challenges and ambitions lie ahead.

Metro Codes Catching More Violations

The inspectors at Metro Codes who examine blighted buildings, tall grass and other nuisances say they’ve found a more effective approach to their investigations.

Codes Director Terry Cobb said in his hearing that his team has become more proactive since adding six inspectors last year. Instead of waiting to respond to citizen complaints — which lead to confirmed violations roughly half the time — inspectors are initiating more cases on their own.

“We moved the needle. We moved it substantially, and I see that rising even higher going forward,” he said.

Cobb estimated that inspectors previously triggered about 30 percent of property standards complaints, but that the share has climbed to 50 percent, and could go higher.

Meanwhile, Codes is one of few departments seeking additional hires this budget season.

Another Way To Measure Growth

An analysis found that members of the Metro Council filed almost twice as many bills in 2017 (1,059) than in 2012 (632). The stat was reported during a discussion of how busy the council’s support staff is. The same number of employees are dealing with the larger workload.

Metro Council Attorney Mike Jameson
Credit Metro Nashville Network

The Metro Council’s attorney, Mike Jameson, said that responding to public records requests has also been a burden.

“The number of public records requests submitted recently has exploded,” Jameson said. “The amount of time that it takes to respond to those appropriately and accurately is … swamping us.”

Police Body Cams Still In Process

Police Chief Steve Anderson is asking Metro for another $13.5 million to fully deploy body worn cameras on Nashville's 1,400 officers.

Part of that funding, if approved, will go to adding 22 additional officers to handle the deluge of footage, as well as another 12 civilian technical experts to handle the increase in public records requests, and additional personnel to install and maintain the cameras in vehicles.

"The body worn cameras are going to put an additional strain on that administrative work," Anderson said at the hearing.

Last year, Metro Council approved the purchase of the body worn cameras. And the city began field tests last fall with 20 officers, a significant step in the city's push for more police transparency and better community relations.

Another item Chief Anderson is requesting is $37,000 for repairing and maintaining the city's six aging helicopters.

"I am always a little concerned when I get in one of those helicopters," Anderson said. "Two of the helicopters are 28 years old, the other four are between 45 and 48 years old."

A Prior Commitment Lingers

Metro’s budget picture may have shifted in the past year, but a commitment from last year lingers for the District Attorney’s Office.

Deputy District Attorney Amy Hunter said her department is requesting $400,000 to increase the salaries of all assistant district attorneys, arguing that the current entry-level salary ($49,000) is not retaining talent.

And Hunter said the Public Defender’s Office had received a salary bump last year, leaving prosecutors behind. She said the Metro Council appropriated a $5,000 raise for each assistant prosecutor last year and recommended that the same amount be added again this year.

“Our office is charged with protecting the community and should at least be paid as much as the public defenders who are representing citizens who are accused of committing crimes,” Hunter said.

When asked to quantify turnover at the agency, Hunter said she can think of about 5 attorneys who’ve left due to a better paying job elsewhere in the last five years.

Metro Water Says Increased Fee Has Meant More Completed Projects

Metro’s Water Services department has greatly increased the number of stormwater management projects being completed across the city. The change follows a stormwater fee increase approved by the Metro Council last year. So far, Metro Water has been using the funding as promised, to ramp up its work.

Director Scott Potter said large-scale “A” stormwater projects have doubled in the past year, and that small-scale neighborhood work — known as “C” projects — are also up.  

“We’ve spent $3.1 million this year, compared to an average of less than $1 million prior to the rate increase, so we’ve tripled the C projects,” Potter said.

The 2017 fee increase was Metro’s first change since 2009.

Riding National Honor, Library System Makes Requests

Fresh off the accolade that he leads the nation’s best library, according to Library Journal, director Kent Oliver made his case for areas of expanded funding: reopening more branches on Fridays, and providing bus services to the growing NAZA afterschool program that the library adopted from Metro Schools.

Library Director Kent Oliver
Credit Metro Nashville Network

Oliver said eight libraries remain closed on Fridays, and noted that the maintenance staffing level has “never returned to pre-recession numbers.”

Though budget hearings don’t typically lead to immediate funding commitments, Mayor Briley called the library system a city “jewel.”

“It is going to be a status quo budget year, essentially, but please know that we are committed over time to commit the resources,” Briley said.