The Metro Council gave unanimous approval to a $1.8 billion operating budget Tuesday night, after making several additions to Mayor Karl Dean’s initial spending proposal.
The mayor’s proposed budget represented a $100 million increase over the current fiscal year’s, largely accounted for by a $26 million increase in funding for Metro Nashville Public Schools and $57 million in additional debt service payments stemming from the decision to refinance part of the city’s debt in 2010. Dean’s proposal also included a $2.8 million funding increase for the Metro Nashville Police Department, in part to fund a new DNA Crime Lab, and a $4 million increase for the Metro Transit Authority to fund the University Connector and the new bus rapid transit lite service on Murfreesboro Pike.
Although Dean’s initial proposal included only a 1.5 percent across-the-board pay increase for Metro workers, the administration announced last month that they would go ahead with standard incremental raises of around 3 percent for up to 6,000 employees.
The substitute budget approved by the Council Tuesday night added $702,200 to Dean’s plan. Most notably, it includes a $200,000 subsidy for the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. The funds — which represent the first taxpayer-funded subsidy to the property in its history — would only be available after the Council takes up the Fairgrounds Master Plan. That plan includes a variety of options for either continuation of the current uses at the property, or redevelopment.
The final budget also includes, among other items, $150,000 added by the council for the continuation of the Workforce Development Program, and $99,800 for a new probation officer position and the replacement of lost grant funds at the Juvenile Court.
The budget will take effect at the start of the 2013-2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Tuesday night’s meeting also provided for the first proper discussion of the mayor’s proposed bus rapid transit project, The Amp, in the Council chambers. Dean’s $300 million capital spending plan includes $7.5 million for the next stage of engineering in the project, contingent upon the Federal Transit Authority accepting The Amp into its Small Starts program.
A public hearing on the spending plan was mostly dominated by supporters and opponents of the $175 million BRT project, which would run along the West End corridor from White Bridge Road to Five Points in East Nashville.
Supporters of The Amp, who outnumbered opponents, wore green shirts bearing the project’s logo and the slogan “I’m amped.” Represented among them were the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, a variety of pro-transit groups and several of the larger hotels along the corridor. They voiced support for a project for which time, they said, has come, echoing the administration’s defense of the corridor as the city’s “main street” and arguing that it would serve as a starting point for transit upgrades around the city.
The mayor himself has asserted that the West End route gives the project its best chance of securing crucial federal funding because of the density along the corridor and the resulting potential for high ridership.
Greg Adkins, CEO and president of the Tennessee Hospitality Association and the Greater Nashville Hospitality Association, told the council that the association’s board had voted unanimously to support The Amp. He said that, from a hospitality standpoint, it could be “one of the most important projects the city votes on since the Music City Center.”
Charles Bone, Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee board chair, said “this is where we get moving” on transit.
“When you think about what is on this route, and what will be covered by this route, it is literally the Main Street of Tennessee,” he said. “This is where it needs to start.”
Opponents of The Amp have insisted that the project will increase traffic congestion, despite claims to the contrary from Metro officials and project boosters. They have also raised concerns about the removal of on-street parking along the route, and the effect it could have on businesses. Still others have argued that Charlotte Avenue makes more sense, particularly because residents along that corridor are more reliant upon public transit options.
Several speakers expressed doubt that the riders the project is counting on will be waiting for The Amp when it arrives.
“It doesn’t have citizen support,” said Margo Chambers, who lives near the western end of the route. “I live along this corridor, I’m supposed to be a likely rider. Not only will I not use it because it doesn’t match my commute, I have not met one person in my neighborhood who would use it on a daily basis.”
The council is expected to vote on the capital spending plan as a whole at its next meeting, June 11.