Jeff Syracuse Metro Council District 15
Happy New Year! What’s ahead in 2020, Update on Metro Finances and Important Transit Meeting
Dear Friends –
I hope everyone had a wonderful Holiday Season. Hard to believe 2019 is done. I know I’m a bit behind sending out a newsletter. Let’s dive right in. Lots to cover here, mostly on what’s happening in Metro and economic development in the community.
The biggest and most important focus right now is getting our finances back on track. Things have been moving quickly since the term began. I’ll try to break this down in a palatable way.
- The initial FY19/20 budget was not balanced because the plan to bring in a private company to manage on-street parking and selling our downtown district energy system was not approved, thankfully so, because neither were a good idea. However, that did leave us with about a $41.5 million gap to close in this budget.
- An unbalanced budget is against State law. Justin Wilson, the Comptroller for the State of Tennessee, visited Metro Council’s Budget & Finance Committee (of which I’m a member) to make a presentation of where we stand and actions that need to happen. CM Mendes, Budget & Finance Chair, added the presentation on his website here. CM Mendes and a number of other colleagues have become more adept than I at getting out quick communication (I know… my newsletters are long and have been working to get shorter e-blasts out there, especially with situations like this that are very fluid.) I encourage you to follow CM Mendes’s website for his excellent and informative updates here.
- Mayor Cooper has made some difficult decisions as we knew he would have to in order to correct our fiscal issues and balance the budget and fill the $41.5 revenue gap. Some of the below is rather complicated. Here is how the revenue gap has been filled and was approved by the State Comptroller:
* An agreement with the Convention Center Authority will bring about $12.6 million annually back into the general fund from the Music City Center via a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Taxes) agreement.
* $10 million via a PILOT with Metro Water Services.
* $7.2 million MDHA TIF (Tax Increment Financing) payment reduction ($10.8 million was the total, with $7.2 million to Metro and $3.6 million to Metro Schools).
* $3.6 million from the Convention and Visitors Corporation. Debt Service reimbursements for facilities that attract tourists are an allowable use of Tourist Promotion funds under TN Code and the CVC will adjust their spending from that fund to accommodate the $3.6 million reimbursement.
* $500k from program reimbursements from Sheriff’s Office / US Marshall Service. The Sheriff will be housing federal prisoners under an existing contract. It’s important to note this contract does not include ICE detainees. This is a net gain of revenue to Metro, and funds will need to be allocated to the Sheriff’s Office to budget for this new programming.
* $2.6 million in targeted savings, fund balances and deferrals:
$600,000 of excess fund balance that has built up in the impound lot fund that will be transferred to the General Fund.
* $450,000 budgeted for the staffing study and public property performance audit that have not been started and cannot be completed this fiscal year.
* $200,000 of the amount budgeted in post audits where current projections indicate this funding will not be needed to close out the fiscal year.
* $100,000 of contingency that has not been used and that Finance doesn’t believe will be needed this year.
The remaining $1.2 million is anticipated excess savings from various departments and agencies throughout Metro.Last year nearly all Metro departments and agencies exceeded their targeted savings amounts by a collective total of $8.8 million.Departments and agencies continue to be mindful of the need for savings and based on mid-year budget meetings, we believe they will again collectively exceed savings targets.
- Of the budgeted $10 million for the Barnes Fund that goes towards assisting affordable housing projects, only $5 million will be awarded. The Mayor has said this is a partial impoundment of this fund and will strive to ensure it is put back in future budgets. This does delay some critical affordable housing projects from moving forward.
Another decision that was made that I fully support is $18 million that was debt already approved for the Gulch pedestrian bridge has been reallocated for other critical infrastructure projects, traffic calming, street lights and needed new trash cans around the county. In addition, the promised extra 3% pay increase last summer that teachers would get starting January 1, 2020 was kept under the new administration. So, where do we go from here? As this upcoming budget planning cycle is absolutely critical, there is agreement to start it early. Our fiscal year is July 1, but the budgeting process has already been started in the administration and the cycle will be moved up one month to June 1, so that the Comptroller has ample time to oversee and approve that we have improved cash management, redevelop adequate reserves.
Will a property tax increase be on the horizon? I believe so, yes. Is it warranted? I believe so, yes. What will it be and where will it go? That’s the critical question we will address in the months ahead. I have voted against a property tax increase over the last two years. I didn’t feel there was 1) a substantial long term plan for how revenues would be used and 2) a lack of trust that there wasn’t a fundamental change in direction that would’ve otherwise just fueled more development and not directed the money to critical areas of schools and public safety. You may hear from a colleague or two on Council who believe we need to make more cuts. I disagree and have yet to hear what cuts there are left to make. I believe we’ve cut to the bone. I have engaged with staff at our departments at all levels. Our staffing levels at departments and they’ve consistently made more and more cuts. Their staffing levels are what they were during the recession more than a decade ago and our ability to recruit and retain teachers, police officers and fire fighters is hampered by our lack of ability to support them with competitive salaries. This absolutely must change. Here’s one recent story highlighting the challenges we face. Our property tax rate is the lowest in Metro history after the 2017 property reassessment. We will have another reassessment in 2021. I believe under Mayor Cooper’s leadership and Council’s hard work, we will continue to trim spending, address our revenue needs and ensure every penny is put to address our top priorities.
Here’s a good story about where we are headed with the budget process this year.
Mayor Cooper’s administration is hosting a series of eleven public listening sessions about where we go from here in regards to transit. Read about all of them here. The one for our side of town will be on Thursday, January 16th at 6pm at FiftyForward Donelson Station. Please mark your calendars and make plans to attend this important meeting.
At Council last Tuesday I had the honor of presenting a resolution I sponsored honoring the 50th Anniversary of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee. I was joined by Councilwoman Zulfat Suara, Council Member At-Large Burkley Allen, Erin Evans, Metro Councilmember District 12 and Brett Withers for Council District 6. Thanks to Councilwoman Joy Styles - District 32 for the picture. CEO Melissa Hudson-Gant accepted the resolution and was joined by David Fish and his little brother Jayden (who also had the opportunity to use Vice Mayor Shulman's gavel and start the meeting) along with Nicole Cochran and her son William, who was the little brother of Frank Trew, which made it very special and personal for me. I'd like to think Frank would be proud of the resolution and especially how great of a young man William has become. I'm very thankful for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee and the incredible impact they've made on thousands of young men and women over the years. Read the resolution here.
Thanks to those that attended the rezoning meeting for 1590, 1600, 1602 and 1604 Lebanon Pike. The initial proposal for a 100-unit apartment complex has been changed after feedback from neighbors. The proposal is now 19-townhomes in front and 60-unit condo complex with a rooftop amenity to view downtown. Thus, for-sale product instead of apartments. There will be no short term rentals and the townhomes will have elements of brick in them. It is a much improved plan that will add value to the area. It will be on the February 4th Council Meeting for second reading / public hearing.
A number of folks over the past few years have asked about segmenting off a portion of our Two Rivers Dog Park for smaller dogs. It seems easy enough, but as we know, nothing really is. I asked some specific questions about the feasibility of this. What I learned is that just putting up a section of fence to divide it in two doesn’t work. All the animal behaviorists and other experts that have advised our Metro Parks Department over many years recommend against doing this. It creates “fence aggression” and other undesirable activity. Also, if each zone (big and small) don’t have all the same amenities (water, shade, trails, etc.) that’ll create another issue to address. Instead, the best practice is to create an entirely separate dog park. Parks has strategically chosen to hold off on installing separate small dog parks using Metro funds until the entire county is first well-served with a general purpose park. I support this. I wish it could be done more easily than this, but it is indeed equitable to ensure all parts of the county have access to a dog park before we start building other ones for our smaller dogs.
The U.S. Census Bureau is hiring thousands to help with the big 2020 census. This is very important as this data collected helps direct grants and other federal support for a variety of topics. Visit their website here to learn more about the process and job opportunities.
Big thanks goes to Piedmont Gas for sponsoring the first ever Nashville Christmas Parade train ride. They sold around 600 tickets and about filled the train up. Some proceeds from the “Christmas Parade Express” went to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. I believe it will be back next year. I’m always trying to find new sponsorships for weekend rides wherever possible. See flyer below to learn more about the opportunity.