Tuesday, February 06, 2018

What's on the Council agenda for Feb. 6, 2018: Investigating the mayor's affair, tax for tracks, more $ for General Hospital.

By Rod Williams - The Metro Council will meet Tuesday, February 6, 2018 at 6:30 PM in the Council chamber at the Metro Courthouse. The hottest topic of the meetings is a resolution to launch a council investigation of Mayor Barry related to her affair and the apparent misuse of public funds to facilitate the affair. The other hot items is the mayor's transit program. There is also a bill to spend more money on General Hospital. If you are going to watch the Council meeting, you need a copy of the Council agenda and the staff analysis  or you really will not know what is going on. You can get the agenda and analysis at the highlighted links.

Investigating the Mayor

Romantic Greece - three days and nothing to do.
The item to generate most interest at the Tuesday, February 6th meeting is not on the agenda but will be a  late resolution filed by Budget and Finance Committee chairman Tanaka Vercher to appoint a committee of three to seven council members to oversee the investigation of Mayor Megan Barry. The focus of the investigation would be a determination if the sexual relationship between Barry and her head of the security detail, Sgt. Foster, involved violating Metro travel policy and would include a  review of overtime pay earned by Sgt. Rob Forrest.

The resolution will call on the Vice Mayor to appoint the committee's members. The committee would have the authority to subpoena witnesses and compel them to testify under oath. This charter provision authorizing such an investigation has never been used. Since the resolution is a late resolution it will require suspension of the rules to be considered. The sponsor will get to state the reason for considering a late resolution but that motion to introduce a late resolution is not debatable. It takes only two votes to deny the resolution being considered.  If it is blocked, it will be on the agenda for the February 20th council meeting.  If considered it would require 30 votes to be adopted. I suspect at least two members will vote to block it.

The mayor's tax for tracks plan
Bill BL2017-1031   on third reading is the bill to adopt  the Mayor's transit improvement program and requesting the Davidson County Election Commission to call a county-wide referendum election to be held on May 1, 2018 to approve the tax increases to support the program.

As expected, this passed when on second reading. Also when on second reading it  was amended to modify the language of the referendum. The current language will make the plan more attractive by distorting the facts. It was amended to require that the language of the referendum not say that the vote is a vote increasing the sales tax to 10.25% but instead to say the vote is a vote to increase the local option sales tax to 3.25%. While that is technically correct it is deceptive. The vote by the public in referendum will be increasing only the local option, not the state sales tax. However, when the public votes on this, if they they vote for the referendum, they will be voting to raise the total sales tax to 10.25%,  making Nashville's sales tax the highest in the nation. I bet most people could not tell you which portion of the sales tax is state and which is local. The deceptive language was approved by a voice vote with some audible "no's"when on second.

When on second reading Councilman Cooper proposed an amendment that would require that the public referendum language state that the project would cost $8.952 billion. The referendum was to state that the project is a $5 billion project. The  $8.952 billion figure is a figure stated in the project plan and is the estimated cost of the plan over the 15-year construction period. The $5 billion dollar figure is some of the cost expressed in current dollars.  Cooper's amendment failed and the language of the referendum will use the deceptive lower figure of $5 billion. That is what is before the body.

Cooper's amendment would have also revealed the amount of the total sales tax if the referendum is approved instead of just the local share of the total which is 3.25%. His amendment would have had the referendum state the local option would increase to 3.25% for a total sales tax rate of 10.25%. Cooper's amendment was tabled by a vote of 21 in favor of tabling, 14 against, one abstention and three not voting. The bill was then voted on and passes by a vote of 30 to 5.

To better understand the bill, see page 13-21 of the staff analysis.  Also for more information see this link and this link.  To view the Council debate when the bill was on second reading see the video at timestamp  43:28 to 1:10:47 at this link.

While I think the odds favor this bill passing, I do not think that is assured.  One reason is that the mayor has been weakened by the recent scandal involving her sexual affair with an employee and the misuse of public funds to facilitate that affair. She has lost influence. Another reason is that President Trump has revealed more details of his proposed infrastructure plan and we can no longer assume that $1.5 billion will come from the federal government (link). That now seems highly unlikely. Also, people are just now becoming aware of the negatives regarding this plan and some of the opposition may reach council members.

In a previous post I had erroneously stated that in order to pass the bill required two-thirds vote of the body which is 27 votes. Actually, it requires only a simply majority of the votes cast.  I was relying on what I thought I knew and did not look it up.  I regret the error.

State law requires the proposed ballot language to be approved 75 to 90 days prior to a scheduled referendum election, so the February 6, 2018 Council meeting would be the latest meeting at which the ordinance could be adopted for a May 1, 2018 referendum election.  If not acted upon, then the next opportunity for a public referendum would by August which will be a more important election with greater turn out and will lessen the likelihood that the plan would be approved in referendum.
More money for General Hospital and protecting General
Resolution RS2018-1032  would appropriate an additional $13,231,000 from the General Fund to support General Hospital. This has to come from the General Fund not the 4% reserve fund. The 4% fund can only be used for equipment purchases and repairs. In the past the Council has been able to constantly give more and more money to our failing charity hospital without it hurting.  This time, we are out of money and in order to fund this subsidy the city has to take money from other places.  One of those places is the fund that was to incentivize private developers to build affordable housing. Instead of taking money from other places the city could draw down more money in the general fund but this would be poor money management and probably result in a lowering of the city's bond rating.

General Hospital has been a money pit for generations. In the last two years the Hospital has received $26 million in emergency funding in addition to a $35 million annual subsidy from the Metro Council.  As reported in The Tennessean recently, a recent audit found that the hospital, "failed at basic bookkeeping, unable to keep track of patient payments and major expenses."

While poor management is obviously a problem, the real problem with Nashville General is that  no one wants to go there.  Metro jail inmates without insurance needing hospitalization have no choice and are sent to General and there is a financial incentive for Metro employees to use General but it still cannot fill its beds. The facility is  licensed for 150 beds, staffed for 114 and has an average of 44 beds filled a day. Metro General should have been closed fifty years ago.  Ever since the advent of Medicaid there has been no need for a city charity hospital and the reason it has been kept open is purely political. There is no federal or state law or metro charter provision requiring the city to operate a charity hospital. The reason General Hospital is kept open is because it is a source of prestige for the Black community.

Earlier this year, the mayor showed courage in proposing to change General Hospital from a hospital to an outpatient facility but then she buckled to pressure and retreated.  Since this supplemental funding bill requires taking money from other programs, there may be push back but really the Council has little choice but to spend this money. Until such time as we close General Hospital it will continue to be a drain on the city's resources. If kept open, it must pays its employees and pay its bills.

There is another bill concerning General Hospital,  Bill BL2018-1055 on second reading which would protect General Hospital from being downgraded to an out patient facility only and would provide that  until June 30, 2019, the mayor may not terminate any agreement between Metro and the Metro Hospital Authority without prior approval of the Metro Council by resolution.This is very disappointing. This bill needs to be defeated. I am very disappointing to see that Councilman Steve Glover is one of the sponsors of this bill.

Other agenda items:

There are 17 mayoral appointees to Boards and Commission on the agenda for confirmation and as always they will be affirmed.

There  is one resolution and 17 bills on public hearing.  Items on public hearings are all rezoning bills or related to planning and zoning policy.  Rezoning hearings bore me and I don't even try to form an opinion on the merits each rezoning bill before the Council.  Rezoning bills usually are of interest only to people who live near the proposed rezoning. People who don't care one way or the other do not show up and with rare exceptions the only people who speak in favor of rezoning bills are those who will benefit from the rezoning such as the property owner or the developer.  Opponents always make the same argument which boils down to one of these: 1) the change will result in stressing the infrastructure such as too much traffic on the roadway or overcrowd the schools, 2) will cause flooding, and 3) will change for the worse the character of the community. If you are interested in knowing what is permitted in different zoning districts, follow this link. I call attention to only those bills on public hearing that for some reason I expect to be controversial or to bills which have been disapproved by the Planning Commission. A bill disapproved by the Planning Commission requires 27 votes to be approved on third and final reading and sometimes that can be difficult to obtain.

There are 38 bills on first reading. First reading is a formality that gets bills on the agenda and they are not considered by committee until after they pass first reading.  Normally bills on First Reading are all lumped together and pass by a single vote. It is rare that a bill on First Reading is voted on separately. I normally do not read bills until they get to second reading.

There are 17 resolution on the agenda and all are on the consent agenda at this time. A resolution stays on the consent agenda if it passes  unanimously the committees to which it was assigned. Resolutions which receive negative votes in committee are pulled off of consent. Also any councilman may have a resolution pulled off of consent. Those remaining on consent are lumped together and passed by a single vote. Resolutions on the consent agenda are usually not controversial and tend to be routine matters, such as accepting grants from the Federal or State Government, entering into inter agency agreements over mundane things, appropriating money from the 4% fund, settling lawsuits, or approving signs overhanging the sidewalk. Unlike a bill which requires three votes of the Council to pass, a resolution only requires one vote of the Council.

Below are additional items of interest:
Bill BL2018-1043  on pubic hearing is disapproved bill to rezone property at 5200 Nolensville Pike in Councilman Davette Blalock's district.

Bill BL2018-1051  on public hearing would remove the Adult Entertainment Overlay for a bunch of parcels in Councilman O'Connel's district. The Planning Commission has approved the bill so apparently there are no legal problems with doing this.  No one wants a strip club in their community but while they can be regulated, they cannot be banned. The staff analysis does not review this bill and I have no specific insight on this but am simply calling attention to it. Zoning cannot be used as a means for banning an activity people do not like. Nashville has pretty much regulated strip clubs out of existence. At one time, Nashville had dozens of such establishments but now only a handful of tame clubs remain. If this bill has the effect of making it impossible for a strip club to find a location to operate, then it may result in legal challenges. I am not an attorney and there may be no problem but again there may be, I don't know.

Resolution RS2018-1022  spends $15.3 million out of the General Fund Reserve Fund (4% Fund) for various purchases for 15 departments. This is nothing out of the ordinary and I assume the Mayor's office and the Council's Budget and Finance committee do their job and all of this spending is proper.  One expenditure I hopes gets close scrutiny is $534,000 for Municipal Auditorium. With the large number of music venue's and sports facilities in town of various sizes, I question if the city still needs to be in the auditorium business.

Resolution RS2018-1038 is a memorizing resolution requesting the Tennessee Department of Education to consider neighbors’ concerns and prioritize certain features during the improvements scheduled along Interstate 440.  Included in this resolution is a request that more sound barriers be build along 1-440. As I understand it, I-440 is to have an additional lane added going in both directions.  When I-440 was finally approved after being delayed for years it was supposed to be a "parkway." Originally trucks were not going to be allowed to use it, but that did not last long. In my view, no changes should be allowed to be made to I-440 without mitigating the effect of those changes to the neighborhoods though which this freeway passes.

 Bill BL2017-790 on second reading would revisit the issue of benefits provided to previous members of the Metro Council. Former Metro Council members get a very generous benefit in the form of lifetime metro insurance at the same rate as a retired metro employee. In the interest of full disclosure, I get this benefit myself.  I do not thing we should.  At the time this was awarded, there were no term limits and usually council members served for a long time and there were few former council members and council members tended to be older when they left office. It did not cost a lot. Now, there are lots of former council members.  This was last before the Council in July 2017 and at that time was deferred indefinitely at the recommendation of the committees which considered the bill. To consider this bill the Council would have to vote to override the previous committee recommendations. That is not likely to happen in which case, the bill must permanently be removed from the agenda.

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