Burkley Allen again leads in at-large fundraising

Burkley Allen

Vice Mayor Jim Shulman in September appointed At-large Councilmember Burkley Allen chair of the Metro Council Budget and Finance Committee, passing over its 2020-21 Vice Chair Delisha Porterfield as Metro navigates restrictive legislation from the state, pandemic economy recovery, an affordable housing crisis and big spending on education.

We discussed these and related issues with Allen just before Metro Council’s Tuesday meeting.

Is there any comment you care to give on the open letter you and other councilmembers sent to Mayor John Cooper’s office regarding the state’s special COVID session passing laws targeting Nashville?

I would just say I appreciate the concern for individual decision-making and local government, and those laws do not seem consistent with allowing the people closest to the issues to make decisions. And we wish that they hadn’t happened and understand that: as they’ve been passed there may be implications, and we just need to know how we should respond to those. So we’re looking to some degree for guidance. I think in a perfect world, we would be able to persuade someone that local decisions need to be made locally.

When chairing your committee, Councilmember Bob Mendes characterized Nashville as entering the pandemic with "the worst rainy-day fund of any big city in America." Is Metro doing anything to ensure that’s never the case again in the future?

I think several pieces fell into place. It was hugely important to have all the federal stimulus money that came both through the city and to the city. There were things that enabled us to continue operating, to have shelters and do the testing that we needed to but also the stimulus money that came to the citizens by way of the PPP and other things kept people spending money to some degree so that our sales tax revenue didn’t drop nearly as much as it would have without that. So we’ve been able to […] begin to build our fund balances back up.

As you know, there was an increase in revenue from a tax increase that was very controversial, but it has also been instrumental in building that fund balance back up to the point where we don’t have the worst rainy-day fund in the country anymore, which is a good thing not to have anymore. It was certainly a precarious position that the perfect storm of circumstances got us to that we don’t want to let happen again, and I think we all can now look back and go, “Well, we know how that happened, and we know what not to do in the future.” I think part of that is working not only to think about what this year looks like but both Director [Kelly] Flannery and I have talked about creating a four-year look-ahead just so we know: if you adjust everything for inflation and if we look at property taxes and how much we expect property tax to expand those every year, do all those numbers dovetail nicely for the next two years, 10 years, whatever? How can we make decisions about employee and teacher pay raises [for which] often there’s a paid plan that has cost of living increases and step increases that, in an ideal world, you can depend on as an employee, and certainly as a civil servant I think you start out with maybe a lower salary knowing that you’ve got these built-in steps along the way. Being able to retain good employees and good public servants rests to some degree on being able to fulfill those promises.

All those things can be plugged into where we were last year, where that puts us this year, and where it puts us for the next two or three years and where under what circumstances do we keep a healthy fund balance and still be able to fully fund our schools and to continue to keep our roads paved and pick up the garbage and have clean water to people. Looking not just at this year but also a couple of years ahead and thinking what patterns do we want to start now that’ll be maintainable that put us in a good position and keep both our rainy-day fund and also our department allocations in a spot that delivers good services to everyone who lives in Nashville. That’s our goal.

Does pandemic economics still reflect significantly in the Budget and Finance agenda?

There is still a couple hundred million dollars coming through in the [American Rescue Plan] funding that we are trying to use both for small business recovery where that’s appropriate or for reimbursement for different departments that we are having to do now that we wouldn’t otherwise. Some of this last wave of money — and I do think it’s the last wave — has descriptions or requirements that have enough flexibility that I think there’s some interpretation of: this is something that we had to do because of COVID. For example: “We need these vehicles to move people to testing or better health care” or whatever. But with the last round of funds, we would only have been able to rent those and not have anything left over at the end, and this current round of funds allows for some capital expenditures that may then be useful to us after this is over.

So there’s potential benefit there that could last beyond the actual effects of the pandemic that we’ll use to help get us through it but then actually still be able to have beneficial use of them after that, and that’s a good thing. In terms of actually planning our budget, if we’re looking at our four-year look-ahead, then we’ve got to think: What funds will be here this year because of these things, and what will that look like next year, and how does that make us decide to plan for what our trajectories look like. It’s important not to get lulled into being used to having certain pots of money that we know are going away, so it’s important to allocate those things that are actual special needs that have come up because people have had to quarantine or because people have been out of work because no one can get out and spend money.

Councilmembers were concerned about bond issues when Saul Solomon was interim finance director. Is any of that still reflected in your agenda?

Clearly, that’s been colored by the selection of Kelly Flannery as the new finance director, and certainly, she has the expertise now to make great evaluations of our ability and capacity to issue bonds going forward. Since we’ve just made that [appointment], we’ve checked that off the list for probably another 18-to-24 months before we’ll be facing that prospect again.

The big topic will be over the course of the next month is: Is the size of the capital spending plan — like Goldilocks — is it too big, too small or is it just right, and I think that’s where the Council will be putting its energy next month, and then hopefully we’ll get that settled and move on to the operating budget. The capital spending plan is presented as a resolution, which typically is passed in one reading. It’s traditionally been deferred for at least one meeting so we can get questions answered, and often there are amendments that are put forth that we want to put forth that we want to kind of discuss and digest. That’s the point where we are right now.

Are there any priorities that your predecessor, Kyonzté Toombs, passed on or that you’ve assumed the role with an acute awareness about?

I would say some great precedents that have been set by several of my predecessors are being very deliberate about involving the community in the budgeting process. The past two years we’ve had one where we’ve offered the community an opportunity to learn how the budget works on the front end and then hopefully try to create some opportunities for the community to have input on what they’d like to see in the budget along the way as opposed to just one night of public hearings, which is currently what’s officially built into the system. So one priority is to continue that good communication with the community.

Schools is the biggest single chunk of our budget and it was pretty exciting last year to fully fund what they asked for and to have them actually ask for what they thought they needed to help our children come out of this crazy pandemic year and get back on track. I hope to be able to continue to give schools strong financial support. Ideally, we’ll get the state funding improved so that we can get more from the state as well, but I think it’s the most important thing we do as a city, educate our citizens, so that’s an important priority that I would love to have good communication along the way so that we can know what the needs are from the get-go and be poised to meet those.

Housing is one that I’ve worked on both as a Budget Committee member and as chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, so I would like to see the same strong commitment to the Barnes Fund that we’ve had and some other funding mechanisms that we’re beginning to put in place that will hopefully enable both profit and nonprofit developers to also be able to create some of the housing that we need so much.

Public safety is another big chunk. If you look at a pie chart, the two biggest pieces are schools and then public safety. Certainly, there’s been a call for reform in how we do the systems, and the co-response model that the two precincts are trying out this year seems to be going very well. […] That model is showing that there are an awful lot of issues that have come up in the past that no one knew how to deal with except to call the police and for someone to be arrested when actually it was a mental health issue. So as we look at funding for public safety to build on what we’re learning this year from the pilot and to direct money as we can to alternative ways to deal with crises that we’ve, in the past, only thought that sending a policeman with not any kind of expertise, support to deal with. Now we’ve got a better model that shows that, in some of these cases, there’s somebody else that, as part of a team, they can handle that much better and keep people out of jail and get them the support they need.

I would say right now, where that’s happening is operating budget as opposed to capital budget, and the capital expenditure that we made along that way is the Mental Health Diversion at the downtown jail, which is also really successful just in terms of having someone who gets arrested in the past and we brought him to the jail. Now, there’s a mechanism to identify at that point: This is a mental health issue. He doesn’t need to spend the night in jail; we’re going to divert him to our mental health division and begin providing that support.

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