By a vote of 36-3, the Metro Council Tuesday night approved a $1.52 billion budget for the next fiscal year, a financial plan only slightly altered from the version Mayor Karl Dean submitted in April.
The council’s approval came a month after it had already signed off on Dean’s plan to restructure, or essentially push back, the city’s debt as a way to avoid a property tax hike and draconian cuts to Metro services during a tight budget year.
“It looked pretty good when we were just facing a bad economy,” the council’s Budget and Finance Committee chair Ronnie Steine said of the debt-restructuring plan. “But now that we’re facing the greatest fiscal catastrophe this community has ever faced, it looks even a little bit better.”
The now-approved budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year is the smallest dollar-wise in four years. The average cut for each Metro department is 1.4 percent.
“This budget decreases the overall size of Metro by a little over 1 percent,” Steine said. “This follows a decrease of just under 2 percent last year. We are tightening our belt overall and all of us know there are some individual departments that are now cut very deeply after the last few years.”
The council made only $232,000 worth of additions to the budget proposed by Dean: $75,000 will go to Juvenile Court to boost a mediation program; $96,500 is slated for the Davidson County Election Commission to fund five additional early voting sites for August’s elections; and $60,000 has been awarded to the state’s trial courts to address juror parking and lunches.
Though council members who voted for the budget took satisfaction in avoiding a property tax hike and massive cuts, some called it bittersweet to sign off on the $633.3 million budget for Metro schools, which includes the school board’s decision to privatize the school district’s custodial services.
“I vote for the budget with one reluctance,” Councilman Phil Claiborne said. “That is the schools issue. I’m very concerned with what I perceive as an arrogant act on the part of the school board to make the decision they made and the timing they made it.”
Council members Eric Crafton, Robert Duvall and Jamie Hollin voted against the proposed budget, with the debt-refinancing plan being the main point of contention.
“We’re paying $47 million worth of extra interest costs to just kick the can down the curb a couple of years and avoid a property tax increase or extra cuts,” Crafton said. “At some point very soon, to catch our shortfalls back up, there’s going to be some catastrophic property tax increases for people.”
But most council members said the budget is palatable given the dire financial circumstances.
“We have much to celebrate here,” Councilwoman Kristine LaLonde said. “Across the nation, cities are closing libraries, cutting hundreds of teachers, cutting services, and we are not facing that here in Nashville.”
In other business:
• The council awarded $69,500 to a security worker who in 2006 was injured after tripping on the outside stairs of the Ben West Building as he was helping General Sessions Court Judge William Higgins carry a box of the judge’s personal items.
The man had filed suit against Metro. The Department of Law recommended paying the settlement to account for the man’s medical bills for which the city was liable.
• By a vote of 22-14, the council rejected a bill on second reading that sought to abolish a Metro regulation that prevents restaurants 100 feet from houses from selling beer.
Under the bill, sponsored by Councilman Jamie Hollin, all restaurants with valid liquor licenses issued by the state would have been exempted from distance requirements for obtaining beer permits.
Hollin said his goal was to eliminate the lengthy process business owners are forced to navigate in order to be excused of the distance requirement.