Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Your Latest Break-It-Bought-It Moment in Mayor Dean's Convention Center Proposal

You can't say that some of us have not been warning you that costs would start skyrocketing eventually on Mayor Dean's proposed convention center. Who knew it would have happened so fast, so soon to the tune of almost $400,000 over.

Public relations firm McNeely, Pigott & Fox billed Metro for almost 3 1/2 times the hours the first month that they promised they would average each month. And Metro paid it with the blessing of Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency executive Phil Ryan, who looks like a cop moving us along with, "Nothing to see here." At least he conceded that either MDHA or MP&F underestimated costs in the beginning.

There is one significant parenthesis that some of us advising MDHA on the Salemtown streetscape could add at this point: miscalculation and cost overruns in an MDHA project are consistent with what we have experienced. Once MDHA contracted our federally-funded neighborhood construction project out, they negotiated a bloated agreement that contained higher than advertised expenses and that resulted in critical errors and delays. So, MDHA's current macro-level blundering on the Mayor's convention center seems like old hat from our micro-level streetscape struggles with the housing authority.

I'm not surprised at all that McNeely, Pigott & Fox was able to score larger-than-projected Metro bucks. However, the magnitude of the windfall is staggering. And it reinforces the question, "Just who can control MDHA as it doles out government funding?" Apparently, Mayor Karl Dean--who is no stranger to the public relations giant, but whose political fortunes in the next election could very well be decided by his strong stance in favor of a convention center in the middle of a recession--has decided that he can.

Hold on a second. On the one hand, the Mayor says that the buck stops with him and he is temporarily suspending MP&F's contract so that his finance team can review past billing and oversee all future bills. On the other hand, one NewsChannel5 report I saw earlier today indicated that the Mayor did not know anything about the cost overruns until the media investigation, and by implication no one in Metro Finance has been closely overseeing MDHA and Phil Ryan on what could be the most expensive construction project in Metro history during tight budget times where public services to neighborhoods are being cut annually.

I don't understand the Mayor. If the buck stops with him, then shouldn't he be keeping up intimately with what looks like the centerpiece of all capital projects? Is ignorance really an excuse? And isn't the job of Metro Finance to incessantly shadow the MDHA machine so that they have first-hand, breaking information that expenses were outstripping all projections? Why was nobody in the Dean Administration waving red flags about this? Shouldn't someone either in Metro Finance or in MDHA be fired for this failure to keep tight reigns on costs given all of the other Metro Departments that have slashed their programs to the bone?

I find it infuriating to watch our community centers restrict hours, to see grass on MDHA Section 8 properties grow tall and uncut, to read that the Mayor exercised a preferential option for the wealthy in raising stormwater fees disproportionately for small operations, and then to learn that MDHA and a private public relations firm have had carte blanche until one TV station turned on the project. And we cannot praise NewsChannel5 enough for standing up to this administration while the print media at SouthComm provides public relations coverage for the Mayor and while Tennessean reporters are being coached to write fluff pieces with the Metro funded assistance of McNeely, Pigott, & Fox.

Every Nashvillian who has been affected by Metro budget cuts should be demanding more accountability from the Mayor's office, including dealing discipline to guilty parties in this sad episode. And we should be shaming the media into acting more like the budget watchdogs we're seeing at NewsChannel5.

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