By RACHAEL LONG
*Editor’s note: The story was updated Monday, April 8 at 11:21 a.m. to include comments by resident Larry Garland.
Much to the frustration of residents gathered at Town Hall Thursday night, the Nolensville Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BOMA) approved the first reading of the town’s FY 2019-2020 budget.
Residents wearing T-shirts in support of the Nolensville Volunteer Fire Department and “Save Creekside” gear filled so many seats in the town chambers that an overflow area was created upstairs.
Fire trucks were parked outside Town Hall and several members of the NVFD showed up in full uniform.
Despite the turnout, when it came time to take a vote on the first reading of the budget, only Alderman Derek Adams opposed the motion.
Arguments against the budget came almost entirely from residents concerned about the town’s decision not to include Volunteer Fire Chief Brian Moat’s requests for paid personnel, including a paid, full-time chief. Residents argued that without some paid firefighters on duty, the results could be dangerous.
One of those residents was Larry Garland who spoke up during the public comments period. He said the City of Nashville has plans to build a fire station nearly across the street from his house. As a resident of Williamson County, however, Garland said the first responders at that station may not have jurisdiction to intervene in an emergency.
“Minutes can seem like hours in a time of critical need. Minutes may make the difference between life and death,” Garland said. “I lose sleep over this question, ‘How long would it take for a Nolensville fire, EMS and rescue team to reach our house from the south side of town?’ What if the urgent need arises during the many hours we call rush hour?”
Many residents spoke during the public comments time, none of which spoke in opposition of additional funding for the NVFD. Almost all were met by the chime of a bell, meant to alert speakers that their allotted three minutes were up.
The majority of speakers saw the bell as more of a suggestion, and continued to voice their concerns until they were cut off by town leaders.
Vice Mayor Jason Patrick spoke on behalf of the budget concerns for nearly 40 minutes, with the desire to have a “family conversation” with the town that took a comprehensive look at the town’s financial situation in the context of its past, present and future.
Patrick began his discussion by emphasizing his support for the fire department.
“This is a budget discussion. I’m trying to look address [the] fire department and roads, and our current financial situation, where we’ve been, where we are and what it’s gonna take to move this town forward,” Patrick said. “I can tell you with certainty that we’re committed to public safety.”
Among several topics, Patrick covered the specific uses allowed for each funding area of the budget. According to Patrick, much of what can look to an untrained eye like unassigned funds actually have very specific purposes or restricted uses.
In late March, Adams conducted a Facebook poll on the Nolensville 411 page to get a sense of the community’s willingness to support some kind of tax increase to financially support fixing roads and funding first responders. The poll generated a great deal of feedback and showed leaders there was a strong sense of support for an increase in property taxes.
Patrick, who at one point said it may well be time for a property tax increase, said much more planning needed to go into such a decision.
“We want to make sure we’ve got the right decision. And the reason that we need to go through this process to figure out what that is, is how can we come to you and say, ‘This is how much we need to raise taxes,’ unless we know what that price tag is?” Patrick said.
The vice mayor’s entire sentiments can be viewed on the Town of Nolensville Facebook page, along with the rest of the BOMA meeting.
In the end, Patrick voted to approve the budget, and said “I would love for us to be able to do more.”
At one point, as Patrick spoke about the budget concerns facing the NVFD, Moat spoke up from the audience, calling into question the accuracy of Patrick’s statements.
He wasn’t the only person to speak up. A woman who had her hand raised for several minutes inquired as to whether she would be allowed to speak and was denied. The time for public comments had come and gone, leaders said.
A palpable frustration filled the room, and as the meeting approached three hours, many audience members began to trickle out.
Frustrations seemed to peak when Garland, who spoke during public comments, was asked to leave after Police Chief Roddy Parker said he used profanity to describe members of the board.
As he got up to leave on his own accord, Parker approached Garland to usher him out more quickly. The man exclaimed, “We are leaving, you don’t have to make us.”
Garland later disputed Parker’s comments that he had used profanity, explaining on a Facebook comments thread that he got up to leave on his own accord and was then “grabbed…by the arm” by Parker and walked out “perp-walk style.” Despite Parker’s explanation, Garland says he did not swear during the meeting.
The incident only briefly disrupted the meeting, and Patrick continued speaking, saying, “It’s not a lack of desire, it’s a lack of resources at this point.”
Alderman Tommy Dugger chimed in, saying, “I’m not saying we don’t need a partial/full-time fire department, but we gotta work to it.”
At one point in the discussion about additional funding for the NVFD, Alderman Larry Felts, who had been quiet for most of the discussion so far, spoke up.
“I’ve backed [the NVFD] 100 percent, and I’ll still back [the NVFC] 100 percent. But there’s times that you have to draw a line in the sand,” Felts said. “One of these days, we may have a full time fire department, but you can’t snap your finger if the money’s not there and put it in place today.”
Mayor Jimmy Alexander highlighted several items on the budget, including increases in compensation for town employees, new computers for staff, a new tractor for the Public Works Department and increases in personnel and vehicle equipment to the Police Department.
Alexander touched briefly on the money allotted for the NVFD — a 501(c)(3) that provides contractual fire service to the town — stating it was more money than last year’s budget provided.
As part of his introduction to the budget discussion, the mayor also mentioned the creation of a part-time Public Information Officer (PIO) position. Alexander said the position was needed to help alleviate the workload of other town staff members. The compensation, he said, was never intended to be a base salary of $45,000, a figure “that has been mentioned on social media.”
Part of the money in the $45,000 line item for the PIO position, according to Alexander, is for the payment of live streaming services. When Adams offered to do this service for free, Alexander pointed out that elected officials “should not be involved in any way with providing social media information or being a PIO,” something he said is stated in a Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) report.
“We can’t expect Wesley or whoever else to come out here twice a month and do the live streaming and not compensate them, and that’s what we’re doing,” Alexander said.
When it comes to providing a service for free, the men and women who volunteer at the NVFD may be able to sympathize.
“These are the people that keep this town safe day in and day out, these are the people that are really getting us through this rough patch that we’re in right now,” Moat said during his departmental report. “I can assure you there’s a lot of birthdays missed, a lot of personal stuff missed and a lot of time given out of their lives to protect us.”
Adams spoke on the issue of funding concerns, offering solutions for ways to conserve money that could be redirected for “priorities” such as funding a full-time chief. Some of those solutions involved cutting back on some other budget items, like the town events budget, the PIO position or hiring one police officer instead of two.
“I’m just not a huge fan of the nice-to-haves when there are absolute necessities,” Adams said.
The budget is a draft until it is officially adopted by the BOMA. Before that can happen, it must go through a public hearing and a second and final reading. The budget draft can be viewed on the town’s website here.
For more information about the town budget, contact Nolensville Town Hall at (615) 776-3633.