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VOL. 42 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 27, 2018

Battle fatigue setting in with Metro Council

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The Metro Nashville City Council is “just worn out,” Councilman Robert Swope says. “All of us are completely beat up. We’ve had more elections in the last three months than we’ve had in the last five years. We’re all sick of it,” Swope says. “We’ve got the MLS soccer stadium thing going crazy. Look at it, transit, property taxes, budget. This is a part-time gig for us. I’m spending 70 hours a week working on my part-time gig.

“It’ll beat you up in a hurry.”

Council members make about $15,000 a year to do what amounts to a full-time job, spending an inordinate amount of time in meetings, on the phone, going to neighborhood meetings, ad nauseam.

They have to be in pretty decent financial shape just to stay in office.

But what about those at the bottom of Metro’s pay spectrum, those doing the hardest full-time work for what amounts to part-time pay?

Esi Arthur-Snodgrass, a paraprofessional at Harris-Hillman Special School, recalls being eligible for public assistance when she started working for Metro about five years ago.

People were shocked, she says, when she brought in her check stubs for proof of income and they saw the Metro Nashville logo on them. She’s in a better situation since getting married, but she was still making only $12 an hour at the end of the latest school year.

Arthur-Snodgrass spends her days working with Metro’s most fragile children, from age 3 through 22. She and her co-workers might have to lift an 18-year-old onto a table to change a diaper, because many of the students are unable to meet their own basic needs.

During the summer, she baby-sits to make extra money. But she sees others dragging themselves into the school during the year after working extra jobs. Making $20,000 to $30,000 a year, they have no choice in a city with one of the highest costs of living in Tennessee.

Paraprofessionals aren’t completely forgotten.

Metro Councilman Russ Pulley helped steer some $1.3 million toward raises for them this year. It helps offset the Council’s decision to rescind a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment slated for this year.

But with 900 paraprofessionals working in Metro Nashville Public Schools, they won’t be filling their grocery carts with T-bone steaks each week after getting this raise.

Pulley says the “obvious” effect of the $2.23 billion status quo budget is the impact on the school administration, which cut several central office positions. He also concedes more needs to be done, even though he voted against a 50-cent property tax adjustment.

“Obviously, that’s not nearly what we need,” he says of the increase for paraprofessionals. “We need more for the schools, and we need more for raises.”

Increasing pay to match rising costs in a rapidly growing city is no easy feat, though, especially when it comes to lifting those at the bottom of the totem pole.

Rising rents, higher property values and inflation combine to make life tough for people making poverty-level wages.

Arthur-Snodgrass’ concerns, though, don’t lie only with paraprofessionals but with children across Davidson County, many of whom don’t have a coat substantial enough to shield them from the cold when they wait at bus stops on winter mornings. She’s also afraid a cut in federal funding for the MNPS food program will keep children from receiving the nutrition they need to do well in school.

“There’s a huge deficit when it comes to what children receive in Nashville,” she adds, and that will worsen when the meal program is gutted.

Harsh reality

Councilman Steve Glover says he’s been warning people for years about this situation, out-of-control spending.

“We had to have a new baseball stadium. We had to have a new $18 million bridge to nowhere. We had to tear up old sidewalks and put down new. It’s just ridiculous the way we have spent money on crap we didn’t need,” Glover points out.

Glover contends the Council needs to get back to basics such as fire, police and emergency management and let the rest slide.

If that’s the case, though, when can Metro put money into public improvements and maybe a few extras?

And with Major League Baseball putting Nashville on its short list for expansion, what will the Council do if Commissioner Rob Manfred comes calling? Fold its tents?

Sure, the Council is beaten up by the resignation of Megan Barry and all of the uproar that brought, the soundly defeated transit plan that left transportation questions unanswered and the list goes on.

But this is no time to take cover. Instead, they’re going to have to buck up.

Oddly enough, the Council went against the grain and adopted a status quo budget, refusing to adjust – or increase – the property tax rate after a 2016 reappraisal brought 37 percent average increases in value countywide. Experts say it was an extremely difficult reappraisal year, a situation in which it was hard to get a handle on new commercial development.

The Council acted as if Bob Mendes’ 50-cent increase was an all-or-nothing vote, instead of taking up a moderate adjustment and then coming back in 2019 with another one. Sure, some people around Davidson County would have seen their taxes go up, but under the current arrangement, people in some of the fastest-improving parts of Nashville are paying less in taxes. And that doesn’t make much sense.

It also seems a little odd for Nashville to have the lowest property tax rate, at $3.15 per $100 of assessed value, of Tennessee’s largest cities. The Shelby County rate alone is $4.37, and the Memphis rate is $3.40.

All those cranes dotting the Nashville skyline have been a point of pride for Nashville. But they don’t seem to be pulling their weight anymore.

“So, we have to keep in mind that we see all these cranes and all these buildings being built and awesome things going on downtown. But that’s downtown,” Arthur-Snodgrass adds.

“The rest of the city is suffering. We’re growing in leaps and bounds and we have large populations of people who don’t have what we assume they have because we’re looking at these shiny places.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering Metro Nashville government and the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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