Thursday, November 20, 2014

The new ballpark blows its $65,000,000 Metro budget and the casualties include our future services from Public Works and Metro Water

First Tennessee Park wants you to marvel in the glory of their beige bricks
as the ballpark construction budget hits a wall.
[screenshot from their Instagram account]

Last year Mayor Karl Dean, with a big assist from my very own council member Erica Gilmore, ramrodded the plan for First Tennessee Park through the compliant Metro Council with little or no discussion and minimal chances for community feedback. When it was suggested that the developer/owner Frank Ward be held liable for any budget overages beyond the $65,000,000 budget, CM Jerry Maynard called it "a poison pill", supporters wrote in letters not to stipulate such a responsibility on poor, cash-strapped Mr. Ward. The compliant council--with the enthusiastic support of 2015 mayoral candidate Megan Barry--absolved the Nashville Sounds club from any responsibility for cost overages.

And just like that, the mayor and the Metro Council encumbered the Metro budget for any obligation beyond the $65,000,000 of expense planned for project construction.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost for us, even those who so blindly hopped on the bandwagon without a second thought or a single misgiving. You see, the council stuck us with the bill.

The Mayor's Office admitted to the Tennessean that it will have to spend $5,000,000 more on the ballpark due to water lines, electric lines, and paving along its properties. Mind you, this is Metro government. They have all of the information on water lines, electric lines, and paving. They are people who are supposed to be able to see this sort of thing coming. You cannot convince me that they did not know. Either they kept themselves willfully ignorant or they considered anything over $65,000,000 as bad PR in the days leading up to the big council vote.

Ever since my family moved to Salemtown 10 years ago, we've known that the area has 100 year old water and sewer lines underground. Every time a development goes up here that knowledge is reiterated. Some developers have balked at the price of upgrading the antiquated infrastructure here. This is not some big unknown. If we knew that fact, if others knew that fact, does Metro Nashville (and more importantly Metro Planning, which informed the ballpark plan) have any excuse for not knowing that when it came time to proposing a budget?

Gilmore: refused to slow
the plan down to talk
things through
Of course, there are many who would have supported this plan sight unseen were the proposal $70,000,000 or $75,000,000 or $80,000,000 regardless of the damage to funding the delivery of the Metro services we actually rely on every day. The idea of community planning, of involving stakeholders in big capital projects in the process, is lost on these people. And I'm not sure that they understand the connection between increased expenses to pay for this luxury and the loss of income to sustain our basic services.

It is such foolishness, because that is exactly what Hizzoner's budget busters are going to cost us; delivery of services because the money is going to come out of other Metro departments; Metro Public Works, Metro Water, and Metro IT (Metro Water is already raided annually to pay off the Tennessee Titans' football stadium). Keep this mind: it will be bad form to criticize the failure of these taxed departments to deliver services in the future if you made no effort to slow down Erica Gilmore in 2013 when she brought this project to full approval less than three months even against the protests of her constituents that we need more time and community involvement.

Others of us were waving red flags about this plan and its unanswered questions as soon as the first community meeting ended. We warned that something like this could happen to put our services at risk. And, by golly, we were right. The Mayor's Office plans to raid other services that our tax dollars pay for. And here is not a thing we can do about it now. After all, Courthouse logic would say, "We've already committed so much money to this. We need to bite the bullet and see it through. Compared to $65 million, $5 million is chump change." And you know what? We, the citizens of Nashville, are the chumps. This was an open-ended confidence game from jump.

Playing Nashville like a dollar store guitar.
It is amazing to me that Rich Riebeling, the mayor's finance director, can claim with a straight face that he already watched the budget overages of the new convention center. So, he expected them in the ballpark plan. He said nothing about expecting the same kind of overages in the community meeting he at the Farmers' Market. And if he had the same realism regarding the ballpark, why did he fail to provide some cushion in his initial cost estimates? The only thing that I can figure is that he failed because he was just as willing to risk the future delivery of Metro services on First Tennessee Park as he was on Music City Center for the sake of wealthy developers.

The Mayor's Office rationalizes the overage by setting the economic growth ceiling even higher. The sky is the limit for these guys and no expense can be spared for Frank Ward, even though many of us understand that everything has limits. Unforgiving limits. Like those causing Metro Nashville Public Schools to teach some children in frigid portable buildings. See how it is? A minor league baseball owner lives high on the Music City hog because he is already rich while some of Nashville's kids shiver while trying to learn math or science.

Beyond the ballpark dreamers, will it truly be a boon for our North Nashville neighborhoods? We know it will be for Mr. Ward. One spellbound real estate journo relates the owner's plan for thousands of feet of restaurant and bar space to the "symbiotic relationships" retail space has will new ballparks around the country. The flip side of that symbiosis is that in other cities the restaurants and bars that already existed in surrounding neighborhoods are reduced to survival mode.

For all of these rationalizations that local businesses will prosper due to Metro Nashville dropping more bling on Mr. Ward's ballpark, residential and retail, one unwavering truth remains. Frank Ward will be competing with the businesses along Jefferson Street. He will try to pull customers into his complex to spend more in order to backload his government subsidized income. We are bankrolling his competitive advantage. It is that way with all professional team owners in this age. But don't take my word for it. Sports economist Victor Matheson makes the case:

Teams aren’t in the business of making sure to generate a lot of money for the local bar across the street .... They’re in the business of selling you the $11 beer ... once you’re inside the stadium.

In the end, Karl Dean and Rich Riebeling and Jerry Maynard and Erica Gilmore and Megan Barry and every other stadium supporter are hawking a bill of goods and a gallon of snake oil to justify spending tens of millions for what is nothing more than corporate welfare to keep a very wealthy real estate kingpin from pleading poverty and moving the team out of Nashville. As if we don't hear everyday how Nashville is such a hot commodity that people choose to stay without being bought and paid for. As long as we swallow the myth that rich big shots require our tax dollars we will simply look the other way as these budget busting overages continue to roll in.

We can choose to bury our heads in the sand under the pretense of supporting the local team and North Nashville, but how long can we afford to keep doing that?

 Play ball, Megan Barry?  Pay bills!

UPDATE: As of March 18, 2015, the expenses are skyrocketing $10,000,000 over the original budget projections. Karl Dean says that he will not raise taxes or float bonds to pay for it which means that the revenues will have to come from Metro services.

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