Friday, May 17, 2024

61st Annual State of Metro Address, Full Text. The Mayor is Reasonable; sets the Right Tone.

Delivered on May 14, 2024 by Mayor Freddie O'Connell

Good morning, everyone.

Vice Mayor Henderson, Pro Tem Suara, Budget and Finance Chair Porterfield, members of this historic Metro Council, honored guests, and my fellow Nashvillians... I'm honored to present the 61st annual State of Metro address on behalf of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.

I want to thank our hosts here at The Fairgrounds Nashville as well as our sign language, and Spanish and Arabic language interpreters who are helping us reach more of our community. This is the first time a State of Metro address has been offered in multiple languages. Fifteen years after the successful Nashville for All of Us campaign, we're continuing to take steps to be a welcoming city.

I want to thank the diverse and talented people who make up my team and the Metro government workforce.

I want to thank all of our event participants who have helped us with this special meeting of the Metro Council.

And I want to recognize and thank my family, without whose support I couldn't do this work.

Today I can—and will—tell you a lot of things about Metro, but as I do, I remember a thing a wise man once noted—Nashville is bigger than Metro.

So in talking about what we've achieved, what our priorities are, what I think is going well, what our challenges are—we know that local government isn't the only part of your life.

But I also know that when it is part of your life, we have to be operating at our best.

We got started right out of the gates with three resident-led transition committees focused on How Nashville Moves, How Nashville Works, and How Nashville Grows. Their work has informed our work for the past 7 months, including how we built our team.

Today we'll be talking about a lot of numbers, and they matter. But I know it matters more when we pave the pothole you encounter every day than that we've filled 20,000 potholes this year alone.

I'd like to start by talking about where we are. As in, where we physically are today. Spoiler alert: I have no big announcements for you today about the Fairgrounds, but there are some things worth sharing about this place's past and what we know about its present.

When I was a kid, we used to come to Fair Park. By the time I was enjoying the rides, the old wooden roller coaster was already decommissioned. It was like a fossil. A decaying monument to a bygone age. What an early indicator that things change and leave the bittersweetness not just of memory but even the fear of missing out in their wake.

Now that coaster skeleton and all of Fair Park is gone, along with Opryland. Those of us who've lived here for a while have lost a lot of beloved places. And there's a shared grief every time we lose a Rotier's or a KnockOut Wings.

But that same childhood also didn't have the current downtown library, an actual zoo, or a Frist Art Museum.

Later, as a teenager, working at my first job at The Great Escape on Broadway, we used to head to a warehouse in what is now The Gulch and sling boxes of surplus inventory onto a truck and head to the flea market, where we'd sell comic books for a quarter and other stuff you might find at the register at the main store.

I loved working the flea market even after Fair Park was gone. We're about to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the flea market at this very spot — May 24 through 26 — and I guarantee you: you'll find a good deal on something.

Now at that first job, I was working for the minimum wage. $4.25 an hour back then. I got a raise. Then the federal minimum wage went up, and it was higher than my raise.

The federal minimum wage—now at $7.25/hour—hasn't changed in 15 years... But we know the cost of living in Nashville has. And we're trying to make sure that we're making progress toward paying everyone in Metro a living wage. With this year's budget recommendation, we're increasing the lowest hourly rate for full-time government employees in the city to $20/hour.

More recently, we've taken our family to the Nashville Fair, an ongoing testament to the fact that this is a fairgrounds.

And this past weekend, our family took the trusty 52A Nolensville for free to the Nashville SC game and back.

A fair, a vibrant expo center, a soccer-specific stadium, affordable housing soon enough, and, yes, racing, for 120 years.

Here's what I can tell you—people want to be at this site. And that's why it's so important that we've improved transit access, added sidewalks, and made it ever so slightly easier to ride your bike to a game.

But it's taken us years just to make incremental improvements, and we'd like to move faster. We're going to need your help.

I'm going to tell you another story about why this matters.

My parents always stressed the value of education to me and my brother, so I worked hard to get the best education I thought I could. And when I was 18, I thought it was worth it to pick up some student debt to study computer science.

I came back to Nashville, degree in hand ... along with tens of thousands of dollars of loans. And I aggressively started paying down that debt. Within a few years, I was debt-free.

As a reward, the car I was driving broke down, and I faced a choice—go back into debt almost immediately or figure out something else. I bought a bike and figured out our transit system and learned how much money it's possible to save when you don't have a car note, car insurance, maintenance, fuel and parking costs. For me, it was enough for a down payment on our house in Salemtown.

More people deserve the opportunity I had for a pathway to financial empowerment. More people deserve to have an option to get home on the bus when their late shift ends sometime after midnight.

More people deserve to come to the Fairgrounds without fighting traffic just to fight for a parking space.

More people deserve to walk to the schools and small businesses around the corner without being in a ditch or on a shoulder.

And more people deserve to catch green lights more often when there's no traffic coming the other way.

More people, like Mary Roskilly's daughter, Rory Miller, can ride the 17 bus directly from her 12 South home to Hillsboro High without going downtown.

More people like Prince's Hot Chicken General Manager Tamara Kelly can find more employees to work at Tanger Outlet, which will have new bus service.

More people like Joy Andal, a power wheelchair user, can have more options with WeGo and their Access services to be able to check in on friends and maintain independence.

And more people like Nashville State students can get to class and pursue their dreams.

It's possible to do this. Most other American cities our size have figured it out.

Now we've got our chance. We took a decade of plans and tens of thousands of pieces of input that you've shared during that time and built a transportation improvement program. It's called Choose How You Move, and it's focused on sidewalks, signals, service, and safety. You can learn more about it at

Here's a summary of what's inside:

  • 86 miles of sidewalk improvements. When combined with annual capital spending, this will let us complete the entire WalkNBike Nashville priority sidewalk network.
  • 54 miles of upgraded corridors to provide faster, more reliable transit options, better sidewalks, and improved safety on our busiest roads.
  • A transit system that runs 24/7/365 because Nashvillians don't just work from 9-to-5. We're doubling the frequent service and adding nearly double the number of crosstown routes.
  • 12 community transit centers that connect to each other, so riders don't have to go downtown just to get to some other part of the city. You'll see a preview when the new Dr. Ernest Rip Patton, Jr., North Nashville Transit Center opens on June 18.
  • 17 new park and ride facilities.
  • 35 miles of upgraded and new bicycle facilities.
  • And the thing that might help us all the most: upgrades to almost 600 traffic signals – two of every three traffic lights in Nashville – to make sure we all hit fewer red lights after Nashville SC games or in our daily commutes. This will help people moving around the city whether they're walking, biking, taking transit, or driving.

These are the things Nashville residents have been asking for. They're the things we know we need.

So here's what happens next. Under the terms of the state law that lets us pursue dedicated funding for transportation and infrastructure, we're waiting on an independent audit. Once we've got that back, if it's good, then we'll ask our Metro Council to put this program on the ballot.

And if they do, then this November, we can finally get moving. Let's go.

I can't tell you enough about how much I love working with our team in the mayor's office, the larger team of Metro, and the people just outside who give so much of their time and energy to making what we do go.

Today's a good day to take stock of what we've already accomplished, what's happened along the way, and the work we know lies ahead.

In addition to getting that transportation improvement program done, in 7 short months, we prepared a Capital Spending Plan—our buy stuff budget—that pulled together a lot of community priorities, a lot of departmental priorities, and a lot of Metro Council priorities. These are shared priorities, and the Metro Council unanimously approved our approach.

In 7 short months, we sprinted from a procurement process that recommended we work with The Fallon Company to develop the East Bank, and we did, from day one. Our Chief Development Officer Bob Mendes worked diligently with multiple people from our Metro team and other partners to create a deal that does some important things.

Last year, we talked about a Nashville for Nashvillians, and Bob worked on this principle intently. Thinking about the things that made the neighborhood and community experiences he's known throughout his life great, and he tweaked the dials to make sure that things like churches and childcare, local businesses and jobs, sidewalks and transit. These things connect people no matter what they earn. Bob and a great team worked hard to set us up to build—from scratch—a real neighborhood where real Nashvillians live.

45 percent of the homes in the first phase of development — 695 out of 1550 — will be affordable.

We spent a lot of time negotiating for a cluster of new neighborhoods that will offer homes for people of all walks of life, and we want more of our neighborhoods to feel this way.

And, again, this Metro Council approved the deal unanimously.

These are moments when the State of Metro is strong.

We did all this while we suffered conspiracy theorists reopening the wounds of the Covenant School shooting, while we grieved with Chief Drake over the loss of his only son under extremely trying circumstances, while we weathered deadly and devastating tornadoes, while we endured winter weather that only comes along once every quarter century, while we responded to plane crashes and disappearances.

That's the part where the State of Metro is exhausted. Research shows we gravitate toward bad news and negativity.

So it's important to reflect on the progress we're making, even when we endure so much. Maybe especially because we endure so much.

So here are a few key bright spots:

The police department's Partners in Care partnership with the Metro Public Health Department and Mental Health Cooperative is now operating countywide – in every precinct – as of May 1st. These co-responder units, where officers are paired with mental health clinicians, have responded to more than 27,000 service calls since launch. That's our first and second responders working together. I'm proud to have supported the program as a Council member and continue to do so as mayor.

We've revised our overall approach to public safety, adding community-based safety programs and refining traditional policing programs, and it's working. Through the end of April, homicide in our city is down 25.6 percent when compared with the first four months of 2023. January through April, violent crime is down 5.4 percent, with drops in commercial robberies and aggravated assault. Gun thefts from vehicles are down 35 percent year-over-year. Since February 1st, MNPD's special initiative to combat car theft and related crimes has resulted in 401 arrests and the recoveries of 229 stolen vehicles and 92 guns.

There have been 127 new hires at our Department of Emergency Communications in the last 15 months, and the DEC is now in compliance with national call answering standards for emergency and non-emergency calls for the first time in department history. With 92 percent of 9-1-1 calls answered within 15 seconds. And that's on top of a 66 percent improvement in non-emergency calls answered within 20 seconds.

Since September, we've also welcomed 68 new recruits into the Nashville Fire Department. We've increased staffing in both fire operations and EMS. And we're on pace – for the first time in years—to have the police department fully staffed by the end of this year. We're adding new heroes by the day.

I want to also recognize another group of heroes. This has been a great year for Metro Nashville Public Schools. It's one thing to be recognized by your community. It's another to be upheld as a national model.

Our Metro Schools recently received national recognition in the Education Recovery Scorecard as one of just two large urban districts in the top 10 for both reading growth and math growth.

And we've expanded our University MNPS partnerships, which create full-ride scholarship opportunities at local colleges and universities. That includes the new Nashville Vanderbilt Scholars Program, announced two weeks ago. I just spoke at the Nashville State commencement, where 34 Early College scholars graduated as part of the remarkable partnership between Metro Schools and Nashville State.

Since the start of the school year in the fall, we've opened a rebuilt Goodlettsville Elementary and brand-new James Lawson High School. And we've started construction on three completely reinvented elementary schools, with groundbreaking ceremonies for Lakeview, Paragon Mills, and Percy Priest.

We're proposing to invest $18m in textbooks in this year's budget, while also ensuring that we continue an expansion of Community Achieves, nurses in every school, high-impact tutoring, summer learning camps, Saturday instruction, and mentorship, among other key investments.

A few months ago, we had an exciting announcement at the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Healthcare Center, where a partnership with Nashville Health and others will be working to address high blood pressure and hypertension in the 37208 ZIP code. I was there to announce Metro committing $1 million to support the project.

And as our standalone Office of Homeless Services, about to celebrate its one-year anniversary, continues its work supporting our most vulnerable residents, we'll be opening the city's first public permanent supportive housing center in a few weeks, named after the late Father Charles Strobel.

Many years, the State of Metro address includes new initiatives announced in the budget.

This year, though, the big things we're doing are happening outside our traditional operating budget process.

With this year's operating budget—our do stuff budget—given those big things, we wanted to keep moving ahead in a year where we saw revenue growth returning to earth and where we knew we wanted to continue some pilot programs set up with one-time federal funding because they were working. So we're keeping the lights on, have a strong pay plan, are deeply investing in our public schools and affordable housing, and otherwise living within our means with this year's operating budget.

And we're still investing all over the county — a new park at Mariposa, expanding the park at Mill Ridge, finishing those three new elementary schools, two new fire stations, planning a new library at Hadley — with our buy stuff budget.

We're building Nashville's next great neighborhoods on the East Bank while investing deeply in the neighborhoods we already have, and we're trying to serve you better through tools like hubNashville while we're at it.

But I also told you last year that I want you to stay.

And before I end today, I want to share with you a few things that I hope will make it just a little easier to stay or give you something to share with someone else that makes it easier for them.

Sometimes when I speak with community groups, there's a chorus of, "I didn't know that" at the end. This is probably the biggest community group I've ever spoken to, so I don't want you to leave empty handed.

For starters, Rep. Harold Love did something big last year, increasing the income thresholds for people who are eligible to participate in our property tax freeze and relief program, administered here in Nashville by Trustee Erica Gilmore. I want more people to sign up for this program than ever before. It's great when property values go up, but when you're on a fixed income, it's not great when your property taxes go up if you're trying to stay in your home.

Next, I want to let you know about the Financial Empowerment Center. This is an absolutely free financial consulting service supported by Metro that has helped Nashvillians eliminate millions of dollars of bad debt and increase savings by millions of dollars over the past decade. If you're experiencing any financial stress whatsoever, make an appointment today. This is available to everyone.

This is probably the most important year yet for TennCare re-enrollment since COVID. If you're not sure about your status, please check it. And if you need any help, get in touch with Get Covered Tenn.

NES, our local utility, participates in TVA's Home Uplift program, which can result in free upgrades to your home that save you money on your utility bill.

We've also funded eviction right to counsel through the Legal Aid Society. If you're facing eviction and need help, reach out to Legal Aid.

I didn't want to just give you a list of URLs, but trust me that these are all easy to find online. We'll keep trying to make it easier to find resources like this. Basically, if something's hard, please get in touch with us. Whether it's hubNashville or the front door of the actual mayor's office.

We're trying to have no wrong door if you need help. We don't have a program for everything, but we have a lot of people in this city who care about each other.

There are so many things smart, committed people have been working on to make our lives just a little easier—sometimes for a while now—and I want people to know about them.

So there you have it. We've done four big things in these past few months—the East Bank, a transportation improvement program, a buy stuff budget, and a do stuff budget.

Three transition committees helped us get there, focused on how the city moves, works, and grows.

We're focused on cost of living and quality of life.

And I hope you walk away with something that made your life easier or will help someone you know.

We have a great opportunity to restore your faith in local government as a resource, a partner, a listener, and a responder.

We have a great opportunity to reach for the future instead of only lamenting the past.

We have a great opportunity to preserve so much of what we love about Nashville and make it better.

And I think all of this is evident here at the Fairgrounds. Things many of us grew experiencing still happen here, even though the place continues to change. And new experiences are possible here, too.

People still want to be here.

And we want to make it easier to get here. Just like all the other places people want to be or need to be in this city.

Thanks for taking a stroll down memory lane with me today. Let's give ourselves some more choices about how we move into our future together.

Thanks, Nashville.

Rod's Comment: The underlining above is mine to call attention to parts of the speech I find particularly interesting. That the mayor says something positive about fairgrounds racing, I find interesting. Maybe he is not on board to prevent racetrack improvements and NASCAR. I don't know. He could have praised soccer and ignored racing. That he did not, I think, is of some significance

He uses the speech to promote his transit proposal as is to be expected. I find the proposal modest and practical and am most likely on board or at least not opposed. 

He makes a big deal out of making the starting salary for Metro employees $20 an hour. I am unsure if this is such a big deal. The starting salary for McDonald's in Nashville is $12 an hour. Maybe, there are some metro positions that are only worth $12 an hour but probably not many.  I wonder how many positions will really be affected by the new policy. I doubt very many, but I don't know. 

Like all politicians, he takes credit for new schools and parks and some things that took a lot of people over a long time to bring about.  I don't fault him for that; I just know that is what politicians do. Crime is down in many places, and I am not sure how much of that has to do with policies of the mayor, but it is good news. It is appropriate to point it out. 

He does not say much that I can find that would be divisive. He does not take a victory lap over court wins that defeated State attempts to curtail Nashville governing authority. He doesn't even mention Nashville's relationship with the State, and I think that was wise.

With Nashville being such a progressive city, it would have been easy for the mayor to pander to the woke. Certainly, he would have gotten a lot of applause had he done so. He says nothing about abortion, which he should not have since it is not a local issue, but that would not have stopped a lot of politicians. Also, he says nothing about guns, which he cannot do anything about, but liberals would have liked for him to take a stand against the right to bear arms anyway. He says nothing about gay rights or trans rights.  He does celebrate our multinational character and the old battle that defeated English-only. That is a minor bone he throws to the woke crowd however, and many of us, including me, opposed the English-only proposal. That is not particularly divisive.

Overall, I like the tone of the speech and find no fault. 

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