Nashville budget committee debates use of American Rescue Plan funds

By: - November 16, 2021 5:01 am
Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

 The use of American Rescue Plan funds to address homelessness in Nashville continues to be a controversial subject among members of Metro Council.

Council members have discussed directing more than one million in ARP funds to address homelessness in Nashville. But among the provisions of intended uses for the funds was the purchase of Bobcat trash removal equipment and surveillance equipment in parks.

Last week, the Lookout reported Mayor John Cooper set off a firestorm with his invitation to have council members tour areas with large concentrations of homeless people, also called homeless encampments. 

In a statement, Cooper said the tours were no different from site tours of commercial developments and intended to help gain buy-in from council members ahead of a Nov. 16 meeting. 

Instead, the proposal attracted controversy among council members and homeless advocates, who expressed concern the equipment would be used to destroy the encampments.

On Monday, members of the Metro Council Budget and Finance Committee introduced three amendments to the current Parks Homeless Encampment Equipment legislation in an effort to address last week’s controversies.

Two amendments removed ARP funds from the purchase of trash removal and surveillance equipment. The third amendment aimed to remove funding for the renovation of West Nashville’s Brookmeade Park, an area with a large homeless encampment. 

Members of the Metro Nashville Parks and Recreation Board also attended the meeting in order to address councilmembers ‘questions on the equipment’s intended use. 

Colby Sledge. Metro Councilmember, District 17 (Photo from Sledge Strategies)
Colby Sledge. Metro Councilmember, District 17. (Photo from Sledge Strategies)

Parks Director Monique Odom said she requested the Bobcat equipment for the management of the parks, adding that they intended to remove homeless encampments only if abandoned. 

Several  council members disputed Odom’s claim. 

“The fact of the matter is that this equipment was put into a request about homelessness, and to me that strikes as saying that’s how it’s going to be used,” said Councilmember Colby Sledge, asking the committee to support the amendment.

Sledge called the tours “tone deaf.”

A second amendment sponsored by Councilmembers Sandra Sepulveda, Bob Mendes and Sledge sought to prevent spending $480,000 to purchase 125 “Eye in the Sky” cameras intended to be installed in approximately 20 parks to deter crime among homeless encampments. 

“This body over the years has taken privacy and surveillance really seriously, and I’m proud of us for doing that,” said Sledge.

A Metro Nashville Police Department representative refuted Sledge’s concerns and said the cameras would help deter criminal activity in parks and aid in investigations.

“Often the residents of the homeless camps don’t report some of these crimes for fear of retaliation from those that they live with inside the park, [for] self resolution, meaning they’ll try to solve the problem themselves,” said David Corman, commander of the MNPD’s West Precinct.  “Unfortunately not all homeless (people) trust the police. Cameras can help prevent crime.”

Currently there are cameras in 48 locations throughout Nashville parks, said Corman, and although the MNPD does not track the data, police would be able to access the cameras in real time. 

A third amendment sponsored by Councilmember Ginny Welsch sought to remove $850,000 in funding aimed at renovating Brookmeade Park, which Welsch described as “removal of human beings who have no place else to go from the park.”

“There are many, many parks, as we all know, that need (tender, loving care), and I’m not sure why this park is jumping to the head of the line,” said Welsch.

“Until we have housing, which is the solution to homelessness, I think it’s unconsciously to be spending ARP money on anything that doesn’t move us towards that goal,” she added. 

Councilmember Courtney Johnston said that while the funds would renovate the park, the renovations would not occur until city officials addressed the homeless encampment.

“Nobody is going to enforceably remove anyone,” said Johnston. “The renovation for the park is needed. It’s in disrepair. There’s a lot of things that haven’t been taken care of for a long time.”

Committee members voted to recommend the amendment against the use of ARP funds for trash-removal equipment but voted against removing funds from purchasing surveillance cameras and renovating Brookmeade Park. 

Vice Mayor Jim Shulman has said he plans to address the homeless encampment legislation on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.