Looking back on a week of budget hearings

Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 11:45pm

Department heads carried a consistent message as they sat down with the mayor’s office during last week’s budget hearings: A full 7.5 percent budget cut would hurt — a lot.

Likewise, Mayor Karl Dean had a point to convey, summed up nicely on day three.

“I’ll say this for probably the 50th time in the last three days,” Dean said. “No decision has been made on what percentage of reductions are going to be made. This is a useful step for everybody to go through to determine where we can find savings.”

After Dean, Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling and Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote asked directors of all city departments to explain how they would approach a potential 7.5 percent cut in their budgets for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, each official usually followed with another question: What would you do differently if that figure were reduced?

That second question could be telling. After all, it would seem unwise for Dean — or any mayor, for that matter — to deepen cuts when he unveils his proposed Metro government budget to the Metro Council by May 1. Last year’s overall budget was $1.54 billion.

In fact, in recent years, actual cuts — in the form of layoffs — tended to be less severe than the reductions discussed in these hearings. For the current fiscal year, a projected 125 positions were to be eliminated. The actual job-loss figure was 42. During the prior fiscal year, 200 Metro employees were expected to lose their jobs, but the count ended up being 36.

History should be encouraging for all department heads, although many are likely see their staff reduced to some degree in next year’s budget.

But job cuts of some kind are certainly on the way, given the unlikelihood Dean would propose a property tax increase a year and a half before he’s up for re-election.

And for now, all there is to analyze is a 7.5 percent reduction, cuts that most Nashvillians would feel directly through the loss of various Metro services.

Metro Public Works

Perhaps the grimmest report during budget hearings came from Public Works Director Billy Lynch, who forecast the loss of eight recycling drop-off centers if a 7.5 percent cut were implemented. The scenario would leave Nashville with just four centers — Bellevue, Hermitage, Elysian Fields and Hillsboro High School — where people could deliver recyclable items.

Unfortunately, that barely scratches the surface. Among other losses, a 7.5 percent cut would close the Bordeaux Composting Center, where residents take brush and leaves for recycling, and decrease the number of streets that would be cleared during snow or icy weather.

In total, a 7.5 percent cut would reduce the department’s budget by $3 million and force 38 employees to be laid off — this to a department that has already been sucked down from 522 employees in 2004 to 363 employees today.

“This hurts us. It really does,” Lynch said. “We will do like we’ve always done. We’ll respond to whatever challenges we have and try to make a positive out of it.”

Metro Police Department

Dean’s proposed budget reduction doesn’t jibe with the direction the Metro Police Department is headed.

Such a cut in the department’s budget would translate to laying off 92 police officers, said Chief Ronal Serpas — “a devastating blow” to progress made in crime reduction in recent years.

“But our department and your administration have always looked to the future,” Serpas said.

In fact, he said, his department should hire eight new laboratory supervisors to work toward accreditation for the new West Precinct Forensic Crime Laboratory, which is expected to open in the fall of 2011.

Also, Serpas wants to move forward in the planning process for two new police precincts, one in Madison and one in South Nashville. Last year’s capital budget provided money for that planning process.

Currently at six precincts, Serpas said Nashville ideally would have 10-12 placed around town.

Nashville Public Library

Though a 7.5 percent cut wouldn’t force the Metro Public Library to shut down any of its branch or community libraries, the consequences would still be dramatic.

Under the worst-case scenario, the department would have to reduce hours at its five main branches — Bordeaux, Madison, Green Hills, Edmondson Pike and Hermitage — from 50 hours to 40 hours per week. In addition, smaller community libraries could be asked to reduce hours from 40 hours to 20 hour per week.

No cuts would be directed at the main library downtown.

“We know that they will do the best they can,” Director Donna Nicely said of the mayor’s office. “We’re hoping it’s not 7.5 percent because that’s a major reduction of hours for the public.”

Davidson County Sheriff’s Office

After the mayor’s friendly reminder that “zero is not an option,” Sheriff Daron Hall said his office could live with a more “reasonable” 1 to 2 percent cut — depending on what happens across the street with the police department. As more police recruits leave the academy, more bad guys end up in jail and become the responsibility of the sheriff’s office.

As it is, a the proposed reduction in the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office budget would shave $4.4 million while emptying 87 positions. That could also mean closing a smaller jail facility or two and transferring inmates to other facilities, which the mayor acknowledged could cost more in the long run.

Metro Parks and Recreation

Meanwhile, cuts of 7.5 percent to Metro Parks, as outlined by Interim Director Tommy Lynch, could mean closing the Sevier Park community center; reducing hours at the Wave Country water park; reducing park maintenance; and eliminating administrative positions within the parks police department

According to Lynch, the department is already preparing to tear down the Sevier Park Community Center soon and construct a new facility by 2012.

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