Flood-related repairs put capital projects on hold

Sunday, June 13, 2010 at 10:45pm
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For the second consecutive year, Mayor Karl Dean used his annual State of Metro address in April to unveil a capital-spending plan, a to-do list of new city construction projects that totaled $160 million.

A few days later, Metro officials were assessing an unprecedented level of citywide damages laid by Nashville’s historic flood — nearly $2 billion in private property repairs and a still-undetermined amount to fix damages to public infrastructure.

The flood put all capital-spending projects on hold, and Dean and his administration promptly pulled the plug on legislation for the spending plan last month. For now, it’s unclear when — or even if — a revamped, presumably lighter plan will emerge.

“We’re awaiting a full assessment of damages and what it’s going to cost us,” said Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling. “Everybody keeps asking me the same question over and over again. I don’t know when it’s going to be because I don’t know yet what our overall [flood-related] costs are going to be and how we’re going to pay for it.”

Under the standard formula to pay for damages from a federally declared natural disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pay 75 percent of costs, with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and Metro evenly splitting the remaining 25 percent. Riebeling has said the city plans on allocating money from its 4 percent fund, which is carved out of Metro’s general fund and set aside for standard annual repairs. Redirecting those funds should supply $37.7 million through the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Additional repair funds would come from other revenue streams.

The Metro Council was expected to approve the mayor’s $1.52 billion proposed budget, along with a capital improvements budget, at a meeting on Tuesday. The latter, which only makes projects eligible for funding, shouldn’t be confused with Dean’s now-pulled capital spending plan, which, if passed, would authorize funding for projects.

Priorities sidelined?

Prior to the flood, Dean laid out what he called a “substantial” priority list of previously approved projects.

Among other things, the capital-spending plan included the construction of the 28th Avenue Connector, bridging West End with north Nashville; the predevelopment phase of a new center for the Metro Public Health Department; two new police precincts; two new community centers; a new library in Bellevue; and $5 million for an Open Space Revolving Plan, to be used for the creation and preservation of open green space.

“I’m not going to go piece by piece,” said Riebeling when pressed for the administration’s post-flood priorities. “I don’t know. I’m just not going to talk about any individual ones, because until I know the whole cost, I don’t know how far I’ve got to look at. It’s all complete speculation. I’ve not looked at that list in 60 days. I don’t even know what’s on it anymore.”

Council members whose districts had previously been promised sizable chunks of capital say they’re disappointed some much-anticipated projects could be put on hold for another year but understand given the circumstances.

One of the areas set to benefit most from the plan was Antioch. Though the area is the fastest-growing region of the city, Antioch has historically been left out of major municipal projects. Dean’s capital spending plan had paved the way for a new community center, health center and elementary school in the neighborhood. In addition, with funds from last year’s capital budget, a new fire hall in Antioch is under construction.

“I’ve already started talking with the administration,” said Councilwoman Vivian Wilhoite, who has been outspoken about the neglect of the area. “I’ve talked about those things that we have long asked for. Yes, I realize the flood has impacted everything. Of course I can understand why you have to re-evaluate your priorities due to the results of the flood.”

But Wilhoite called a new Antioch community center “needed and necessary.”

“The need doesn’t change as a result of the flood,” she said. “That’s something that we need to build going forward, even as we consider those flood-related expenses.”

Then there’s the 28th Avenue Connector, a project Dean seemed especially fond of. The idea is to provide a link between two historically divided neighborhoods — north and west Nashville — while creating a better line of traffic from Metro General Hospital, Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University to and from Centennial Medical Center, HCA and Vanderbilt University.

Under the initial idea, established during a $500,000 planning phase, the road would connect 28th Avenue North, which currently stops just south of Charlotte Avenue, with 31st Avenue North at Park Plaza, near the HCA Inc. headquarters.

Councilwoman Edith Langster, who represents the district where the 28th Avenue Connector would go, said she had scheduled a meeting with the mayor’s office to discuss the future of the project. She said both parties planned to sit down Thursday, after The City Paper went to press.

“I called them for a meeting to ask about its status,” Langster said. “Where are we? Is it still on? Is it off? Is it on hold? Are we proceeding forward? I just need some answers to those questions.

“The flood is the major concern right now,” she added. “It’s the top priority. We need to make sure those issues and people are helped first, before we proceed with capital-spending projects. These are people’s lives.”