Monday, March 29, 2010
Metro Nashville budget talks find no slash is too deep
Mayor, Metro departments to discuss next year's cutsBy Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • March 29, 2010 Metro libraries would lose as much as half of their hours. Public Works would stop picking up brush from residents' yards and close all but four recycling drop-off sites. More than 90 police officers would no longer serve and protect. Those are some of the grim scenarios painted by Metro departments after Mayor Karl Dean asked them to explain how they would handle a 7.5 percent cut in another difficult budget year. With the economy still struggling and state sales taxes underperforming, the city will have to decide how to maintain essential services. Facing 10 percent unemployment and coming off approval of a controversial, $585 million convention center, Dean could be reluctant to raise property taxes. But as Dean starts holding public hearings with each department today to discuss the 2010-11 budget, it's clear that some proposals are less palatable than others. The mayor will protect education, public safety and direct services to the public as much as possible, while other areas will be more likely to feel the pinch. "It's very unlikely that 92 police officers are going to be taken off the streets," Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said last week. "I don't see any dramatic changes to the areas of the mayor's priorities." The mayor's operating budget proposal is due to the Metro Council by May 1. The council must set the budget by June 30. Metro's current-year budget is $1.54 billion. The departmental scenarios would lay off hundreds of city employees, increase a few fees and cut direct assistance to some poor residents. The county clerk would eliminate its Green Hills satellite office for vehicle registration renewals, and parking at Metro Council meetings would no longer be free. The Parks and Recreation Department would reduce tree planting and landscape maintenance and open Wave Country at 11 a.m. instead of 10 a.m. Monday through Thursday, except on Labor Day and Memorial Day. But Riebeling and other officials stressed that the process is just beginning. Layoff numbers wound up well below initial projections in each of Dean's first two budgets, and some departments' cuts were less than the percentages that guided each process. "We just have to dig into it," Riebeling said. Libraries may cut hours The Nashville Public Library's main building downtown, which is closed on Mondays under the current budget, wouldn't see any changes in hours. But the five area libraries — Bordeaux, Edmondson Pike, Green Hills, Hermitage and Madison — would go from 50 hours a week to 40, and each community branch would drop from 40 hours a week to 20. Deanna Larson, a library spokeswoman, said a 7.5 percent budget cut would make it difficult to staff the 15 community branches full time. The goal, she said, is to have the branches fully functioning as much as possible. "We don't want to open with a skeleton staff of one person," Larson said. She said the community branches generally serve fewer people than the larger area libraries. Metro Public Works would make a number of cuts to direct services that residents have come to rely on. Residential brush pickup, which has gradually been reduced from monthly to five times a year to three times a year, would go away altogether. Eight of the city's 12 recycling drop-off sites would close. Unless productivity numbers change before the fiscal year ends, the only centers to remain open would be Green Hills, Bellevue, Elysian Fields and Hermitage. Billy Lynch, Public Works director, said he'll be disappointed if those services have to go. But if the 38 layoffs the department is proposing come through, the Public Works staff will have been reduced from 572 employees to 325 — a 43 percent reduction — in six years. "We had exhausted all options," Lynch said. "We had to take a step back and say, 'What are we mandated by law to do?' " So if it loses 7.5 percent of its funding, Public Works will focus on picking up trash, maintaining roadways and traffic signals, and performing other required services, he said. Public safety jobs at risk Along with the 92 police officers, the cuts would eliminate 91 firefighters and engineers, 23 fire captains and eight of 55 fire companies. Eighty-seven sheriff's office correction officers and warrant deputies also would be cut. The police force has 1,365 officers, spokesman Don Aaron said Friday. "Any loss of officers would diminish the department's effectiveness," Aaron said. "But we know the mayor's priorities haven't changed." The Metro school district, which will meet with Dean on April 13 about its budget, has a $25 million budget shortfall. It plans to make up some ground by paying bus drivers for seven hours per day instead of eight. The district also would contract out custodial and landscaping duties to a company that promises to hire current school employees. Riebeling said he can't promise at this point that the city will find the money to meet all of the schools' needs. "That's the $25 million question," he said. "Right now, it's a challenge. It's a sizable number we've got to come up with." The hearing schedule is online at: www.nashville.gov/citizens_budget/hearings_mayor_schedule.asp. All hearings will be broadcast live by Metro 3 on cable and online via streaming video at www.nashville.gov/metro3.
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