By RACHAEL LONG
Anthropologist Margaret Mead could have been speaking directly to small-town Middle Tennessee residents when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Nolensville residents crowded the Town Hall chambers at Thursday’s meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. As they got up to speak one after another, a sense of the citizens’ demands for answers from elected leaders rippled through the room.
The May meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BOMA) featured two public hearings, one for a proposed master plan and the second, a chance for the public to comment on the town’s proposed budget. The five-member board listened without interruption to speakers whose concerns addressed the proposed budget for roughly 20 minutes.
Because public hearings do not limit the comments period of each speaker, some residents came prepared with several pages of notes on which they planned to speak.
‘Priorities of the town’
One such resident was Heather Bates, who said she became more engaged in local government after the 2018 election. On Thursday, she stood in front of town leaders and community members to discuss her concerns regarding the proposed town budget and “in general, the priorities of the town.”
After the April BOMA meeting, Bates said she immediately sent emails to each board member about her concern for the elected leaders’ response to the growing needs of the Nolensville Volunteer Fire Department.
“There were several things that were said last month that I felt, quite frankly, to be a cop-out,” Bates said. “It was stated during [the April BOMA] meeting that the town was going to wait until another [MTAS fire service] study was completed before any action was taken, and it was stated that the study could take six, eight, 10, even 12 months. And to me, that is unacceptable.”
Bates brought up the town’s job search for a public information officer (PIO), for which a line item of $45,000 has been allotted in the proposed budget. In an interview with Home Page, Mayor Jimmy Alexander said the town never intended to compensate a part-time PIO position with the full $45,000, and the true range of compensation would be closer to $25-$30,000, “if we got the right person.”
The justification for such a position, Bates said, was shrouded in irony.
“We cannot expect someone to set up a camera to livestream meetings,” Bates said. “But we can expect the NVFD to work for free, and we can expect someone to work for free in the position of fire chief — a job that easily is 40 hours per week or more.”
Bates also argued that the duties listed in the PIO job description are encompassed within the duties of the town administrator.
“It is insulting to the citizens of this town that a priority would be given to such a position – that duplicates the duties already expressed within the town administrator role – over a full-time paid fire chief,” Bates said.
The town’s former administrator Ken McLawhon began a new position as town administrator for Thompson’s Station on May 1.
Alderman Derek Adams asked near the end of the meeting for an update on the status of the search for a new town administrator, to which Alexander responded some progress had been made, if little.
‘The money’s there’
Another resident who spoke was Caitlin Luszczek, who prepared a detailed analysis of proposed expenditures and areas where town leaders plan to focus funding.
At the April 4 BOMA meeting, Alexander said, “We’re required by state law that the budget be balanced.”
During her comments, Luszczek mentioned this comment from the mayor and proposed that monies designated for the general fund be allotted to the Nolensville Volunteer Fire Department budget.
“There’s a difference between our budgeted revenues and our budgeted expenses of $225,000,” Luszczek said. “Mr. Mayor, last month you told us that our budget must be balanced. What that means is that our expenditures may not exceed our revenues. In this case, our revenues exceed our expenditures by $225,000. That is money that we could give to the fire department right now if we wanted to without increasing taxes and without decreasing anybody else’s budget.”
She mentioned the leaders’ previously stated commitment to public safety, questioning why a committed board would choose to put the excess money into a general fund rather than provide it to the volunteer fire department.
At the April BOMA meeting, board leaders talked extensively about the town’s budget and which money could and could not be spent. The money to fund a part-paid fire department simply wasn’t there, they said.
“Mr. Vice Mayor, last month you said, and I quote, ‘There is not this hidden treasure trove of cash that we’re reluctant to let go of the purse strings to pay for additional services,’” Luszczek said.
The town’s fund reserve, according to Alexander’s statements at the April 4 BOMA meeting, sits at about $6.8 million.
“We don’t have much in reserve,” Alexander told the town in April. “If development dried up in Nolensville, we would be in a lot of trouble. That would cover a year and a half of our budget.”
But Luszczek argued this point Thursday night.
She brought up the town’s Strategic Operations Study, which states that a “healthy fund balance (rainy day reserve) of $2 million, an amount equivalent to 40% of the total annual expenditures in the General Fund.”
“Forty percent of our budget for 2020 equates to $1.5 million,” Luszczek said. “So, if our general fund had $1.5 million in it, that would be healthy. Our general fund has $6.8 million dollars … the fact that you want to take $225,000 out of our expenditures for next year and add it to our general fund, which already has $5 million more than necessary to be considered healthy per our own town study, does not make any sense to me.”
“Actions speak louder than words,” Luszczek continued. “You’ve got the ability to pay for something that you are telling us is of utmost importance to you, so I would like to challenge you tonight to put your money where your mouth is. The money’s there.”
Luszczek and her husband, Mike, have been vocal on the Nolensville 411 Facebook page, asking questions about the budget and engaging with other residents about citizens’ budget concerns. After Luszczek spoke Thursday, the room responded with applause.
Alexander concluded the public hearing shortly after when no one else stood to speak.
Before the meeting concluded, Alderman Tommy Dugger requested that the budget be an item on the June workshop agenda, which will take place June 6 at 6 p.m., prior to the June BOMA meeting.