Is McMinnville in a financial crisis, or is the city doing just fine?
There were differing opinions on that topic as the three candidates for McMinnville mayor squared off Monday night in a political forum sponsored by Southern Standard and WCPI.
Ryle Chastain, McMinnville’s current vice mayor, says the city is on solid financial ground. Billy Wood, a former vice mayor, says the city needs to tighten its belt because too much spending is going to impede the city’s ability to maintain essential services.
Brett Simmons says he believes the city’s actual financial status lies somewhere in the middle with a need to fund all the necessities before spending so much on luxuries.
Said Chastain, “The city only overspent by $100,000, which is far from what I’d call catastrophic or out of control. This next budget year, if the departments return 11% of the budget, which is expected to be the case, we will be perfectly balanced.”
Wood said maintaining a balanced budget is his chief concern, “The first thing you have to do is balance your checkbook,” he said. “You have to lay out a financial plan. We all have big dreams, but if you can’t pay for them it’s a different story. The first priority is to balance the budget.”
Simmons leaned on advice he said was passed down by his great-grandmother. “She said you should never spend so much on luxuries that you can never afford the necessities and if we’re not careful that’s where we’re getting.”
All three mayoral candidates also expressed a desire to take action on the Blue Building, which has been vacant for 11 years. They all pledged to take action on the Blue Building within three months of being elected mayor.
Here are other excerpts from Monday night’s political forum at Warren County High School.
“I feel like the city has made great strides,” Chastain said before listing the accomplishments of the current administration which includes: keeping the Driver Testing Center open, upgrades to the water treatment plant, renovation of Milner Recreation Center, extension of the greenway, bathrooms and exercise equipment along city trails, completion of the Park Theater, a dog park, and a skate park.
He noted McMinnville has a small-town feel and it’s located not far from bigger areas like Nashville, Chattanooga, Murfreesboro and Cookeville.
“We need facilities to attract young people to our area. But we’re obligated to look out for those on a fixed income. Every citizen needs to know if they need police, fire or first-responders that they will come. I left office six years ago. The city had almost $6.5 million in reserves.”
Wood noted the city had $6.8 million at the end of 2017. He said the fund balance at the end of this year is projected to be $3.1 million.
“From $6.8 to $3.1. Simply put, the city of McMinnville has spent $3.7 million more in the last four years than they’ve had coming in.”
He said buying Mud Bums in 2018 was probably the best decision he’s made. He said owning his own business has been a great stepping stone to a leadership role within the city.
“Not only has it helped me grow as an individual, but it’s prepared me to be your mayor. We go through a lot of difficult decisions on a daily basis owning your own business and going through that has made me realize that two of the biggest things I do on a daily basis is I lead my people and I give them a vision of what I want done so they can go out and do it.”
As for the Blue Building, he said, “In a perfect world where the city is flush with the cash, the perfect move would be to put a police department and fire department there, make the fire department a city garage and that way both departments get something new to call their own and it would boost morale. But where we’re at, I think the best move would be to sell it to a developer so we can get tax revenue from it. Instead of increasing the taxes on the people we have, we need to work on expanding our tax base and that’s where I’d like to go with the Blue Building property.”
“We need a three-year, a five-year and a 10-year plan. We can’t forget about maintenance on these buildings. We have to maintain them. You have to plan your work and work your plan, just like your parents told you growing up. We have infrastructure issues that need to be worked on.
What roof is going to leak next? I don’t know, but you have to have money in the budget.”
Wood continued, “As a gentleman said earlier speaking about COVID, economically if we have a downturn, we’re going to be in a mess. We have to be prepared for it. We hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does, we have to have reserves in order to deal with it. No one is against Parks and Recreation. As I said before, if you want to attract young people you have to have it.”
He noted he is currently working on his master’s degree in nursing and hopes to open an office as a family nurse practitioner when he achieves that degree.
“I think considerable effort needs to be put into rehabilitating and maintaining our streets and sidewalks. Next will be increasing pay for our essential workers like police, fire and public safety and next there has got to be some sort of plan for the Blue Building whether it is to let it go to someone else, selling it to them to do whatever they want with it, or even if we knock it down and utilize the property, there has to be a plan in place for that property to be utilized.”
Asked specifically what he said he would like to see happen to the Blue Building, Chastain said he believes a private investor is interested in it.
If that’s not the case, Chastain said, “I’d like to see the city and county work together for a more up to date justice center to take the burden off of an aging courthouse.”
On the Blue Building: “It’s been studied more times than the surface of the moon. It needs to be in private hands. The building is actually in such bad shape when Norman Rone was mayor, he was chairman of MTAS and they agreed to write one policy for one more year for $150,000 for the whole building and that was for debris removal. We couldn’t even buy insurance on the building anymore. If anyone is actually wanting the building to renovate, I doubt it. That’s been looked at several times. Whatever happens with it, it needs to get back to where it’s paying property taxes into the city because that’s the only way we’re going to grow is to develop the little bit of property we have left. It’s not doing us any good sitting there as it is.”