The Metro Human Relations Commission budget hearing with Council last week had it all. There was a sweating department head, petty politics, arguing Council members, vague references to inappropriate spending of taxpayer dollars, even racial undertones.
It was the sort of meaningful budget hearing one might expect when our city legislators are overseeing a $1.5 billion budget during historically bad economic times. That’s what Mayor Karl Dean called his budget process time and again when Metro department heads paraded through last month — a historic budget.
Jobless claims are growing. Government veterans like at-large Councilmen Tim Garrett and Ronnie Steine say they’ve never seen a budget like this before. Metro will be working with less revenue in the coming fiscal year than the previous fiscal year for the first time in its 41-year history.
And in lieu of tax increases? Pay freezes, the suspension of hard-earned longevity bonuses and untold layoffs. Perhaps as many as 150 Metro employees will join the list of Tennesseans without jobs.
The scrutiny directed at Human Relations Commission Executive Director Kelvin Jones was fair. There are whispers, which figure to grow louder in the time ahead, that the Human Relations Commission has grown ineffective.
Council members say privately that the 1,900 complaints Jones said the commission received last year was a wildly inflated number. His leadership has come into question, including his oversight of the $400,000 department budget. It was a point driven home by the likes of Council members Michael Craddock, Duane Dominy, Robert Duvall and Jim Hodge.
But there was a subtext to the tough line of questioning for Jones and that subtext remained unspoken during the budget hearing until at-large Councilman Jerry Maynard — never one to locate his own mute button — pointed it out. Jones is black; the Council members who grilled him are older and white.
There was Jones getting pressed on the first day of budget hearings over a measly $6,000 advertising budget. There he was answering questions about a taxpayer-funded trip to Denver with the Chamber of Commerce last month, which no other Metro department heads attended. At most that trip cost $1,000.
Maynard wanted to be sure that every Metro department head would face an equal degree of scrutiny. If Jones had to sweat out $6,000 for advertising, what should Metro Transit Authority Director Paul Ballard have to do when his department is the only one in the entire government receiving a larger appropriation next year ? Dean’s budget included a $2 million bump for MTA.
Craddock promised Maynard he was in for “an education,” this budget cycle. It was an ominous warning that every Metro department head would be on the hot seat the moment they sat down for their budget hearing.
As fate would have it, Craddock has not been proven right. Ballard breezed through his budget hearing without a single question about the $2 million improvement his department would receive. This despite the fact MTA is already receiving extra funds in the capital spending plan proposed by Dean and millions more in federal stimulus dollars.
No one debates the need for improving the so-so mass transit system in Nashville. Last year’s budget process proved that when the loudest public outcry concerned cancelled bus routes. But how can the budget and finance committee justify grilling Jones about his tiny little travel budget and not have the guts to ask Ballard, “Are you sure you need another $2 million in operating dollars when you’re going to get all those extra stimulus funds in the coming months?”
People are getting laid off. Tenured employees are losing the bonuses they’ve banked on for years.
What about Public Works? Director Billy Lynch received a free pass of his own without having to answer a single question about why, exactly, the department still can’t provide the public with a specific list of where new sidewalks and bikeways will go once Dean’s spending plan is approved.
Lynch and top department staff members have worked on the confounding new priority index for months. After all that preparation, they finally have a working ballpark figure of $6 million in capital funds for sidewalks and bikeways. Another $11 million is coming from the federal stimulus. Yet when asked last week if he could finally list where the new sidewalks and bikeways would go, Lynch gave a meandering answer that, boiled down, essentially equaled a “No.”
Didn’t Council members wonder if the approximately 20 positions Public Works will be losing impact installing much needed infrastructure? Didn’t they wonder why Water Department Executive Director Scott Potter could somehow provide a specific list of backlogged stormwater projects. How does Potter know which stormwater projects will get started but Lynch can’t answer identical questions about sidewalks and bikeways?
During the Water budget hearing, Council members engaged in an awkward 30-minute inside joke of patting staffer John Kennedy on the back. Kennedy deserved the praise, he’s a hard worker. But, taxpayers deserved less chuckles and more hard questions.
Now is not the time to let longtime political friends off the hook. This budget will end with lives changing for the worse. These are dire economic times. Our Metro Council members ought to act like they understand what that means.