It was a familiar scene at the Metro Courthouse Tuesday night, as red-clad fairgrounds supporters turned out for a public hearing on Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed $1.8 billion budget.
Their numbers did not approach the unprecedented crowd that showed up for a hearing on the property’s fate in 2011, but members of the Save Our Fairgrounds group arrived Tuesday intent on reminding Metro Council members of that night as well as of a referendum on the century-old fairgrounds later that year. They urged the council to lift a “dark cloud of uncertainty” that has been hanging over the property ever since.
Despite a request from fairgrounds officials for nearly $800,000 to cover a widening deficit, the mayor’s proposed budget does not include a subsidy for the fairgrounds, nor for the Farmers Market or the Municipal Auditorium. Fairgrounds supporters are asking the council to change that.
But first, the council heard from supporters of the mayor’s budget. That group largely consisted of public employees, or their representatives, expressing gratitude for the Dean administration’s reversal on pay increases for Metro employees.
While Dean’s initial budget proposal called for a 1.5 percent across-the-board pay increase for Metro workers, it did not include incremental pay raises for qualified employees. Administration officials confirmed this week, however, that they plan to go ahead with increment raises of around 3 percent for up to 6,000 employees. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling estimated that will amount to about $6 million.
Riebeling said the decision came after discussions with council members and employee representatives, and noted that the Civil Service Commission “had some issues” with the initial proposal. After taking some more time to think about, he said, the administration decided it was “the right thing to do at this time.”
“The city’s doing well,” he said. “We’re trying to promote harmony instead of disunion, when we can avoid it. It will be a little bit of a burden on departments, but I think we can make it work.”
Riebeling acknowledged that the decision will pose a challenge for individual departments, like fire and police, who will see much of the cost of the raises come out of their budgets. He also noted that Metro plans to do an employee pay study in the next year.
Following the budget’s supporters, were the fairgrounds supporters who turned out to be the only citizens speaking in opposition to Dean’s proposal. They spoke fondly of the property, and urged council members to amend Dean’s budget to grant it some financial assistance.
Melissa Smithson, a member of Save Our Fairgrounds, reminded the council of the 2011 referendum, in which 71 percent of voters supported maintaining the current uses at the fairgrounds.
“If you don’t remember,” she said, “this referendum got more votes than most of you."
Shane Smiley, a long-time and vocal fairgrounds advocate, asked council members to remove the cloud of uncertainty that he said is repelling potential opportunities for events and revenue.
“It’s time for the cloud over the fairgrounds, if it’s going to stay, to be erased,” he said. “There’s only one way for that to be erased. That’s for you as a council and you as an administration to stand up and say we hear you, we support it, the voters have spoken, and we hear you.”
In other council action:
• The council passed a resolution approving the purchase of two pieces of property on Smith Springs Road in Antioch, on which the city plans to build two schools. The resolution eventually passed by a vote of 31 to 1, over the objection of its sponsor Councilman Robert Duvall, who said the site has “split the community.” He submitted a petition with 1,100 signatures in opposition to it.
• With assurances from Doug Sloan, the Planning Department’s deputy director, that it had “nothing to do with BRT” — as some bus rapid transit opponents along West End have claimed — the council approved a plan to rezone 82 acres in midtown to allow for high density development.
• The council approved agreements with various satellite cities in Davidson County, allowing them permission to perform certain additional municipal functions. Oak Hill Mayor Austin McMullen applauded the development in a statement Tuesday night:
“Tonight’s agreement is a major step forward for all of the smaller cities within Davidson County,” McMullen said. “Oak Hill residents should know we do not envision a significant expansion of City services, but this agreement will afford us more flexibility to adapt as the needs of our residents change. This is a win-win result for the smaller cities and Metro government.”