Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New money for police, schools top budget

Cuts elsewhere will cost 200 Metro jobs By MICHAEL CASS • Staff Writer (Tennessean) • March 25, 2008 Metro Nashville schools would be fully funded and the police force fully staffed, but most departments would lose money and about 200 city employees would be laid off under Mayor Karl Dean’s $1.576 billion budget proposal. Dean’s plan for 2008-09, unveiled late Tuesday afternoon, would fund Metro government at a slightly higher level than the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The budget would not require a property tax increase. But most areas, from libraries and parks to courts and social services, actually would receive less money. Dean and his top aides said, however, that they looked to cut and streamline administrative functions before reducing services to residents. If two departments have been processing the same invoices, just one should do the job, Dean said. “There are a number of things I wish I could stand up here and include among these points,” the mayor said after mentioning several initiatives in a speech to the Metro Council. “But I can’t. It’s a tight year.” The council now will review and probably tweak Dean’s plan, with departmental budget hearings starting next week. Council members generally praised Dean and Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling for their first budget since Dean took office in September. Councilman Ronnie Steine said it was “amazing” that the administration found money for three new ambulances and a truancy center in a difficult year. But Councilman Jerry Maynard struck a sadder note. “I can’t celebrate as loudly, knowing 200 families will be impacted,” Maynard said. Someone in the audience of Metro officials and residents could be heard murmuring, “That’s right.” Maynard and some other council members also said they were concerned about Dean’s plan to cut the Metro Hospital Authority’s subsidy by 5 percent, or nearly $2.5 million. The authority runs Nashville General Hospital at Meharry, which primarily serves the city’s poor and indigent population and consistently loses money. Riebeling said after the presentation that hospital officials are working on increasing revenues and that they can “live with” the funding cut. “They’re being treated like the rest of government,” he said. Schools a priority The news was much better for Metro schools, whose budget would climb from $598 million to $627 million, a 4.8 percent increase covering everything the school district asked for. Dean said consistently in his campaign for the mayor’s office that public education, public safety and economic development would be his top priorities, and he said the budget plan reflects that order. “We are at a critical point in our city’s history when it comes to schools,” he said. “There are improvements we have to make in accordance with federal and state requirements, and the Board of Education and I have been working together to make these improvements happen.” Dean said his administration would hold the school board accountable for using its funds “to the utmost benefit of our students.” Marc Hill, chief education officer for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said $13 million of the additional money would be for “targeted interventions” aiming to raise student achievement. “Particularly at a time when schools are facing a challenge, the additional investment, coupled with accountability, is right on target,” Hill said. More police officers The police and fire departments actually would lose about $1.2 million combined. But the administration highlighted what the departments would have in 2008-09: three new ambulances and a full complement of 1,312 sworn police officers for the first time in several years. A recent audit said that while the fire department’s response times to emergency medical calls remain good, they’ve been going up. It recommended that the city add 2.5 ambulances a year for five years. The ambulances — and 31 new employees to staff them — would cost more than $2.3 million. With that much money going to emergency medical services, the fire department’s traditional role of firefighting would have less funding. But Dean said the balance has been shifting from firefighting to emergency medical work. He said he is comfortable that Metro residents will be just as safe from fires with the shift in funds. Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas, for his part, said full staffing would allow the police department to start planning more. “This is a good time,” Serpas said, adding that the $500,000 budget reduction would be “really small.” Truancy center Bridging the gap between public education and public safety is a proposed $500,000 truancy center, which would be run by Davidson County Juvenile Court. The center would take teenagers who routinely skip school and work to get them off city streets and back on track educationally. “This will be a safe place where students and their families can come, separate from the court, to address the reasons why they are missing school,” Dean said. The goal would be to have the center open in an existing facility by the start of the next school year. Dean officials said no parks, public golf courses or libraries would be eliminated. But the library system’s Bookmobile would ride off into the sunset; three branch libraries would lose some hours — bringing them down to the hours offered by the other branches — and the Centennial Sportsplex and Wave Country would be closed Mondays. “You can see who the winners and losers are,” said Steve Reiter, a community activist who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat last year. “It’s a tough budget, no question about that.” Metro Public Works would lose about 8 percent of its funding, and Riebeling said every major area of the department could be hit. A contract with a company that picks up brush from neighborhoods several times a year could be eliminated, with Public Works teaming with Davidson County Sheriff’s Office work crews to do the job instead. “We’re looking at every option,” Public Works Director Billy Lynch said. “I know we can make it work.”

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