SETTING THE STAGE: For 3 three years, SEIU Local 205 members have been the adults in the room carrying the difficult message the property tax rate had to be corrected. That was true before the Covid-19 pandemic started. We had been advocating to create more city revenue to maintain commitments to employees, invest more in Metro Schools, protect General Hospital, and strengthen Metro’s financial position through increased savings and rainy day funds. We warned that the city was not prepared if a crisis happened. Unfortunately, they didn’t head our warning. This year we have had a tornado and the Covid-19 pandemic. Those events cost the city more than$300 million in lost revenues from sales taxes and fees as we approached this year’s budget process. Mayor Cooper proposed a budget with a property tax increase that froze all compensation for employees and kept every department budget flat – except the Police Department where $2.6 million was added for training. The Mayor’s budget also cut non-profits and business incentives. Councilman Bob Mendes proposed a budget that increased the property tax sightly more, but included some raises, restored nonprofit funding and invested in some key services. As we have for three years, we supported and advocated for the Mendes budget. This year, we prevailed, as the Mendes budget passed 32-8, with some amendments.
NO LAYOFFS/FURLOUGHS: First and foremost, in the middle of a global pandemic with unemployment skyrocketing around the country, both Mayor Cooper and Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Bob Mendes made it clear protecting Metro employees jobs was a priority. We have made the case that local government has to lead by example by being a model employer and by refusing to consider furloughs and layoffs, city leaders have shown they agree with us.
FIGHT FOR $15: Years ago, our union started the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Many said it was a crazy idea at the time. Now it is considered mainstream as major corporations like Amazon and Target have adopted a $15 minimum wage. Metro general government set their minimum wage to $15/hour last year, but the move did not include Metro Schools, where more than 1500 support staff were under $15. While the Mayor’s budget proposed a total freeze in employee compensation, Councilman Bob Mendes made raising Metro Schools to $15 a centerpiece of his budget proposal. His budget passed, and now every person employed directly by Metro Government will earn $15/hour.
POTENTIAL STEP INCREASE: A chronic problem in Metro Nashville is our Mayors – and too many of our Metro Council Members – have treated step increases as optional. We know they are a commitment that should never be in question. CM Zulfat Suara introduced an amendment to fund the MNPS step increase by lowering the MNPS reserve fund to 3% from 4%. There is still a question if there is enough in the fund because of rising costs from Covid-19. We will be advocating for federal and state funds given to Metro to reimburse MNPS expenses to help make the steps happen.
For Metro Government employees, step raises were funded in Councilman Mendes original proposal. Mayor Cooper’s office, along with CM Russ Pulley, filed an amendment that took away the funding for those raises and restored the increased funding to the Police Department. As you probably have seen, this increase to the Police budget came amidst a large public outcry to lower funding for policing. On the same day of the vote, the Metro Benefit Board announced a possible savings of $2.6 million in their negotiations with Human, a provider of retiree Medicare Advantage plans. That is funding that could be used to restore the step raise for Metro employees, but we will need to fight for it.
2019 MNPS RAISES PROTECTED: Mayor Briley announced an additional 3% raise for Metro School Employees in the middle of last School Year – a 6% total increase by year end. That raise was funded by a one time restructuring of Metro loans through MDHA. Mayor Cooper then announced he would honor those raises with permanent funding, but in 2020, Mayor Cooper presented a budget proposal that did not fund those raises. The Mendes budget provided another $7.5 million to MNPS (on top of the funds to bring everyone to $15/hour) that ensured they will be able to keep those raises in place.
COMMUNITY SUPPORT AND DIVERSITY MEASURES: Following the murder of George Floyd, the Metro Council Minority Caucus released a set of recommendations for Metro. Among them were funding the long delayed body camera program and hiring a Chief Diversity Officer and Workforce Diversity Manager for Metro. All of those demands were met in Councilman Mendes budget. Additionally, the Community Education Foundation, Nashville Grad program, and a youth Summer employment program had funding restored. CM Mendes also provided funding to open Community Centers on Saturday mornings.
THE FIGHT CONTINUES: Budgets are written every year. We have successfully pushed Metro Council and the Mayor to address the structural revenue problem that caused a booming city to seem broke. As the economy reopens, we will need to be vigilant in protecting workers safety both in our workplaces and advocating for better protections for all workers. We will also have plan for what we think should happen with all the new revenue the city should have next year. We are already learning that revenue losses will not be as great as projected. When we come into the budget process next year, the conversation should be about what parts of the city need the most investment, and we need to be ready to present our ideas.