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VOL. 42 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 27, 2018

More growth, less protection

Metro’s refusal to re-adjust tax rates stokes fears of layoffs in fire, police depts.

By Sam Stockard

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Metro Nashville police are “disgusted” with a status quo budget and the Metro Council’s move to renege on a cost-of-living promise.

Firefighters in the “It City” fear personnel cuts could be coming this year, hurting their response times and increasing property damage.

School system employees say the least of Davidson County’s residents should feel the same success the rest of the burgeoning area is experiencing.

In an era of unprecedented growth and increases in property values, Metro employees are having a hard time coming to grips with Metro’s failure to come through with a 3 percent pay increase, the second year of the council’s COLA [cost of living adjustment] plan.

Meanwhile, council members are projecting an even more difficult budget process in 2019.

James Smallwood, president of Nashville’s Fraternal Order of Police, says Metro refused to follow through with 3 percent cost of living adjustments. This could set the stage for layoffs in the coming year.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“We were promised something, and now it’s not being fulfilled,” says James Smallwood, president of the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police. “They said it was their No. 1 priority to fund the COLA, and they couldn’t get there. It’s very disappointing.”

Unauthorized to strike, police officers have “no recourse” but to accept the Metro Nashville Council’s $2.23 billion budget and the broken promise of a three-year COLA plan, Smallwood adds. They either keep working for Metro or quit their jobs, he notes.

Considering first-year officers earn about $42,000, a 3 percent COLA increase wouldn’t put them anywhere near the $75,000 it takes to live comfortably in Davidson County, according to Smallwood.

“It wasn’t going to catch us up, but it was going to help get us there,” he says.


At-large Councilman Bob Mendes narrowly lost a proposal in June to increase Metro’s property tax by 50 cents, which would have enabled the council to fulfill its end of the COLA deal.

Despite strong growth and an average of 37 percent property value increases in the latest reappraisal, Nashville wound up facing a $34 million shortfall for fiscal 2019, the majority of it stemming from commercial property tax reappraisal challenges in addition to reductions in state education funding and Hall income tax losses from state legislative action.

Mayor David Briley says he hopes to prop up the budget with money from the sale of Metro property, but that is proving a tough task, and the council still has about a $24 million hole in its budget.

Meanwhile, departments were given “targeted” budget cuts to meet this fiscal year, and the mayor is set to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to delve into the budget and find excess spending, not even a month into the new fiscal year, which started July 1.

Sworn into office after Megan Barry resigned this spring amid scandal, Briley proposed the status quo budget while still facing a special election.

“The mayor passed a responsible budget that does not include a property tax increase. It’s too soon to predict next year’s revenue. We have historically low unemployment and the fundamentals of the city’s finances are strong,” the mayor’s office states when asked if Briley foresees another status quo budget next fiscal year.

Several council members also argued against raising the new certified property tax rate because property owners in areas such as North Nashville saw their values go up, many dramatically. Such a move would have put too great a burden on people there, they say.

Despite the mayor’s assessment, the council is dreading a $42 million increase in Metro debt payments in fiscal 2020 that has most of them projecting harder choices next year than they had to cope with this May and June.

“I expect it to be worse next year,” Mendes adds. “Supposedly, the reason for no COLA this year was to avoid layoffs. But then three weeks after we pass the budget these targeted departmental savings will likely result in loss of personnel. And this is the year where we supposedly avoided layoffs. Next year, I think, is a tougher year.”

Metro Councilman Robert Swope concedes the council’s customary process is to adjust the property tax rate, which fell from $4.516 to $3.15 per $100 of assessed value in the Urban Services District following the reappraisal.

Yet Swope voted against the 50-cent increase, calling it “lunacy.”

“Why would we ask the taxpayers of Davidson County to pull money out of their pockets to fix something that the mayor’s office screwed up?” says Swope, referring to former Mayor Barry.

Swope contends council members didn’t hear a peep out of the mayor’s office about a financial shortfall until after a transit referendum failed.

“You know why we never heard word one? Because they were counting on a $9 billion transit referendum passing, which would have put a lot of money into the Metro’s coffers to be basically used to cover anything. Well, sorry, that died by 28 points. Eureka, now we’re in a cash crunch,” he says.

The jaded Swope wanted to cut spending in every department except fire, police and emergency medical services in an effort to keep the COLA intact. But it didn’t work out.

And though he differs dramatically from Mendes on the need for a 50-cent tax increase this year, calling it too much to ask of taxpayers, he agrees the budget situation will be worse next year with the $42 million bond payment looming.

However, if the council and administration can find enough reductions in spending this fiscal year and prove to Nashville residents they’re “willing to tighten our belts,” he might favor a small tax increase in 2019 of 10 cents or so.

The question remains, though, whether that would be enough to satisfy Metro employees. Mendes contends it won’t be nearly enough, with inflation projected to increase, leaving Metro employees in a lurch again.

Worried about service

Nashville Firemen’s Credit Union President Mark Young calls the mood “grim” within the fire department ranks.

Firefighters are frustrated not only with having the COLA jerked away from them, but Young says the fire department is stagnating as the number of 911 calls increases.

Without more fire halls and personnel, response times to calls will increase, Young says, especially since firefighters are depending on overtime to get the job done. OT is in danger of being reduced, and firefighters fear personnel could be cut next to meet projected budget targets.

“When stuff like that happens, it’s a public safety matter, no doubt,” Young says. “I think any city ought to have public safety as No. 1, and that’s not the priority here.”

Taxpayers will suffer because property damage could increase if response times go up to fire calls, according to Young, who says there is “no doubt” more firefighters responding in a shorter time frame means less damage at a fire scene and less property loss.


Fire Department Director Chief William Swann requested additional firefighters but was asked to submit a status quo budget and isn’t putting additional personnel to work this year. He and his staff are working with the Finance Department on additional fire halls, which would be part of a capital projects budget. The department has 38 fire halls housing 39 companies.

“Despite the challenges a status quo budget will create, the Nashville Fire Department will continue to deliver exceptional service to the citizens of Davidson County. Our biggest asset is our personnel. We will face the coming budget year and remain committed to the community we proudly serve,” Swann explains.


Councilman Russ Pulley, who also voted against the 50-cent tax increase, is leery of Young’s statements while acknowledging the fire department would like to hire more people. He contends the issues dealing with fire and police departments lie more with capital expenditures and equipment. He’s waiting for the mayor to present a capital spending plan.

Pulley agrees, though, “backfilling” with overtime isn’t the best way to handle personnel needs within the fire department.

“We’re hoping to get through this year and then figure out something else so we can give them this stuff,” he adds.

Same old line

Metro employees are accustomed to getting short shrift, and librarian Bridget Radford says they are “gravely hurt” by the COLA repeal.

Radford won’t be feeling it just this year and next but on into her retirement because her pension will be based on her highest earning years. At age 62, says she hopes to retire in three to four years.

‘We’re not asking for a lot,” says Bridget Radford, a librarian in the Metro system whose retirement benefits will be adversely affected by not receiving a cost-of-living increase this year.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Employees will receive step increases this year, if they’re eligible, Radford adds, but the outlook is bad. She also recalls years during former Mayor Karl Dean’s administration when they didn’t receive COLAs, step increases or longevity bonuses.

Staff losses only exacerbate the situation, forcing employees to do more in order to maintain quality service and circulation numbers at the Limitless Library, where she works downtown.

Radford also is well aware of the big bond payment coming due in 2019-20 and suspects it will factor into another year without a cost-of-living raise.

So close to a property tax increase that would have allowed the promised COLA – Mendes’ plan failed by just one vote – she and other Metro employees have a bitter taste in their mouths, especially after tens of thousands of commercial property owners succeeded in having the property values lowered by the Metro Board of Equalization following a 2016 reappraisal.

“We’re not asking for a lot,” Radford points out. “We know we have great benefits, and we’re all grateful to have our jobs, and everyone I work with here at the library is very happy working at the library. But it does get demoralizing, discouraging, and sometimes it is a political football.”

Working for the least

Esi Arthur-Snodgrass, a paraprofessional at Harris-Hillman Special School near Vanderbilt, works with some of Metro’s most fragile students. From age 3 to 22, they require daily nursing care, some depending on feeding tubes and others surviving with the help of a trachea tube.

“Our schools aren’t being fully funded,” she says, and that affects the ability of paraprofessionals to do their jobs. She sees many of her co-workers putting in extra hours driving for Uber or pulling other odd jobs to pay their bills.

The council approved $1.3 million for a paraprofessional pay upgrade this year, and another $700,000 was authorized to reimburse students for exam fees. With 900 paraprofessionals in the system, though, and pay low already, the increase won’t make a serious difference at about $1,400 per paraprofessional.

All told, it’s a tough budget year for Metro Nashville Public Schools, which requested a $44.7 million increase, 5.1 percent, and wound up receiving a $7 million increase, .08 percent. With increased costs for insurance, pensions and charter enrollment, it had to cut $17 million from its 2017-18 budget to make things balance.

“This is not a new issue,” says Arthur-Snodgrass, a five-year paraprofessional. “But it’s unfortunate … because we can’t depend on the people that we put in place to support those who support our children.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering Metro Nashville government and the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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