One of the clear losers in Nashville’s new government budget is the Metro Finance Department. A last-minute change will cut its budget by $103,000, likely eliminating at least one staff member.
While the dollar amount isn’t large, the reduction reveals how frustrated the Metro Council has become with some of the spending ideas among the city’s top finance officials.
A common refrain in recent budget debates has been dissatisfaction with how the government’s budget was assembled this year. Acting Vice Mayor Sheri Weiner (and others) called the process “broken,” and councilmen Jeremy Elrod and Dave Rosenberg have gone so far as to say the process “sucks.”
“It’s not a secret,” Rosenberg told his peers Tuesday night. “We spent a lot of hours trying to put together budgets that work; we just don’t have the tools to be good stewards of our city’s money.”
Some council members were caught off-guard by a revenue shortfall that ultimately led to cuts and divisive debates. Others say last-minute budget amendments were rushed.
And a few, like Councilwoman Angie Henderson, say that the mayor, with backing of the Finance Department, end up with too much power over the spending plan, compared to the council.
“We are supposed to be a separate and co-equal body to the executive,” she said. “We are doing a disservice to our citizens if we do not have the ability to diligently dig into this budget and have an independent voice as it relates to finance.”
So as a way to beef up the council’s clout, Elrod suggested they hire a financial expert to work in the small, nine-person Metro Council support office. The catch: to fund the position he would take $103,000 out of the Finance Department.
Elrod insisted the move wasn’t meant as an insult or penalty against that office, but a move for more independent views from staff who “work for the mayor.”
“This is not to besmirch the integrity of anyone in Metro government or anyone in the Metro Finance Department. I absolutely believe they are doing the best of their ability and they’re doing good, honest work,” he said. “However, we need a second opinion. We need more information.”
Elrod’s plan passed on a close vote of 17-15.
He says the new council staffer won’t be as closely tied to the mayor’s agenda and will help busy members to weigh in on the budget.
The shifting of funds also reversed what would have been a proposed reduction of $50,000 for the Metro Council office.
The day before the vote, Finance Director Talia Lomax O’dneal told a council committee that the cut to her team would impact one or two positions, and “absolutely have an impact on services.”
The budget process is broken. Last year, I began fixing our capital budgeting. I look forward to the opportunity to make substantial changes to #MetroCouncil’s operating budget process. We need more info & a better timeline to ensure we are addressing priorities—responsibly.
— Sheri Weiner (@SheriWeiner) June 18, 2018
Procedurally, the mayor works with the finance department on a budget proposal, which is then vetted by the council. This year, the council ended up adopting a substitute budget that made adjustments of about $2 million to the mayor’s initial plan.
The mayor and finance officials did not support a competing substitute that would have raised the property tax to avoid cuts and fund additional budget requests.