Thursday, January 15, 2009

Metro tackles difficult budget process today

Department heads expect cuts By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • January 15, 2009 Metro kicks off its 2009-10 budget process today with a case of the jitters as it contends with a badly bruised economy and slow sales tax collections that could lead to significant layoffs and service reductions. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling will meet with department heads at 1 p.m. at the Nashville Public Library to give them Mayor Karl Dean's instructions, including preparing for cuts as high as 15 percent. Dean, in his second year in office, must submit his recommended operating budget to the Metro Council by May 1. Dean's first budget was a painful one, including 200 layoffs, another 127 positions eliminated and 5 percent cuts for most departments. Although the size of the overall budget actually increased slightly, a 4.8 percent increase for Metro schools meant most other areas had to sacrifice. Dean's second budget promises to be even tougher, said Riebeling, who expects revenues to decline unless the economy turns around. The budget year starts July 1. "We're going to be looking at some very difficult choices," Riebeling said. "Last year was difficult, and this year is going to be exponentially more difficult." Riebeling said he will ask department leaders to plan for several types of cuts in the coming weeks. He said he wasn't ready Wednesday to say what the scenarios would be, but he didn't expect to ask for cuts larger than 15 percent. Direct service a priority Riebeling also will ask departments to focus first on cutting areas that don't provide direct services to the public. "After that, we'll have to prioritize," Riebeling said. "It's going to be hard to get through and keep the city moving forward, but that's what we're committed to doing." Asked if any departments might have to merge in a cost-saving effort, Riebeling said nothing can be ruled out yet. Councilman Randy Foster, who represents part of south Davidson County, said the state's lagging sales tax collections will hurt the city. Metro gets 2.25 cents from every dollar spent here on taxable goods, with two-thirds of that revenue going to schools. "Whatever flows out of the state to cities and counties will be less than it was before," Foster said. "People are really pulling back from spending on large-ticket items — and even small things as well."

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