Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dean hands council a responsible budget

Tennessean Today's Topic: Hard times test Metro budget Our View In an enormously daunting budget year, it should be said that Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has remained largely committed to priorities he outlined since he first ran for office in 2007. Sticking to campaign commitments should not go unnoticed. Dean has submitted both an operating budget and a capital budget that maintain the basic commitments he made as a candidate and has demonstrated as mayor. He has kept that focus despite a historic economic slump. In fact, revenues have declined by $27 million, and the city is looking at a 2.24 percent decrease in its budget. It should also be said here that despite sharp demand for new money, Nashvillians are seeing no great pleas for tax increases at the local, state or national levels. Leaders appear to be keenly aware of the financial constraints being felt and are resisting notions of tax increases. Dean is following the same sensible path by recommending no property tax increase for the coming fiscal year. Dean's latest budget proposal maintains established funding for Metro schools and continues attention to public safety and broad economic goals. Naturally, there is pain in the budget in order to work with a decrease in revenue and a vow not to raise taxes. The largest pain is in layoffs. Metro would lay off at least 100 workers and eliminate up to 180 vacant positions. The mayor also would suspend bonuses. Further, his plan would make 10 percent cuts in many Metro departments, and he recommends substantial reductions in Metro's vehicle fleet. It stands out, then, that the mayor would still emphasize a commitment to mass transit, including a rapid transit line on the Gallatin Road corridor — another original campaign commitment and an excellent step forward in that area. Meanwhile, the proposal, while not eliminating the services, does call for significant cuts in hours at the public library and at community centers, as well as reductions in the frequency of mowing grass and the level of maintenance crews. It might sound like an easy call to reduce hours in libraries and recreation, but the city should recognize that those are the very types of places that offer quality time for the city's young people. Limiting time spent in libraries and community centers creates more idle time for those children, which can kindle trouble. A major problem for Nashville, like cities across the country, is the public health facility, Nashville General Hospital at Meharry. Dean proposes to forgive a $32 million line of credit to the hospital authority, but the agency will still have a $2 million deficit. The solution for General is meaningful national health-care reform. No mayor, council member or local hospital administrator can solve this problem. It is bigger than their powers. National leadership on health care is crucial. The highlight of the mayor's capital budget list is the 28th Avenue connector, which would link health-care facilities, higher education institutions and commercial traffic in ways that would correct the dissection of part of the city by the construction of I-40 years ago. Metro's capital projects had been put on hold by the credit freeze, but the prospects of updating the city's wish list are encouraging. No one could say they like the Dean budget proposal. It is a lean serving for lean times. But there is an air of responsibility in it that serves Nashville well at this point. The Metro Council has the ball now. The council should take the proposal, recognize its strengths, and shore up important areas where it can. There is little room to maneuver in these economic conditions.

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