During last week’s public hearing on the mayor’s proposed budget, Nashville residents demanded more funding for housing, social services and support staff at Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Many also called for less funding for police.
Now, the Metro Council is working on a substitute budget, With residents’ input and requests from city departments in mind. They have to pass a budget before the end of the month.
So WPLN’s Ambriehl Crutchfield sat down with the council’s budget and finance chair, Kyontzè Toombs. She’s a lawyer by day and represents District 2 in historically black North Nashville.
Last year, she was the right hand to the chair and now she’s the lead councilperson. The city’s finances have drastically changed since last year.
WPLN News asked her about how she’s leaning into her role, her thoughts on calls to defund the police and a referendum that threatens to cut $40 million from the upcoming budget.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
WPLN News: A lot has changed, people are getting vaccines and starting to spend more, which is boosting the sales tax. How are you approaching your role as the budget and finance chair?
Toombs: I facilitate the conversations within the council, around the budget and what it should look like. So going forward, as we are considering the mayor’s budget and whether or not there should be any changes. I think that my role is to bring everyone together to discuss what we as a council believe the budget should look like.
So I don’t feel like just because I’m the budget chair, that I dictate what even goes into my substitute [budget proposal]. I’d rather have buy-in because my substitute needs 21 votes. I’m just one person. So it makes sense to collaborate with my colleagues and get their input. So they when it’s time to vote, I get my 21 votes.
WPLN News: I know collaboration is important to you and your style. How do you handle the demand to slash police funding and put it towards the root causes of crime?
Toombs: Even when the mayor was putting together his budget prior to that April 30 date that he filed it, I had conversations with folks in the administration about what I was hearing. What I was hearing from council members, what I was hearing from the public — so that they could take that into account when they were putting together their proposed budget. And I think that, to a large extent, the budget addresses a lot of those concerns; it doesn’t address all of them.
Hopefully the final product that we come up with will be reflective of what folks in the community want. I can say there is there is not going to be an overhaul of the police department. I don’t think that we are to that point.
As a city chief, Drake has made a lot of efforts to put in some progressive changes to how the police operates and how we do policing in Nashville. But I don’t think that we’re to a point where we’re going to do some major overhaul — you know, cut half of the police budget. I have not gotten a sense that there’s enough support for doing something that major, particularly since the narrative has been for years that we don’t have enough police for a city our size.
I hear from my constituents, they’re wanting more patrols and more police. And we talk about Black and brown communities, which obviously we all know have been disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.
WPLN News: You’ve mentioned before that your district (which is mostly Black) wants more police presence. What’s your opinion on the topic?
Toombs: I agree that police should focus on policing. And I don’t think that police, generally speaking, are equipped to deal with like mental health issues, homelessness — you know, even down to traffic accidents, most of those situations. You don’t need an armed police officer to show up.
I do agree that those resources should be reallocated to mental health organizations, dealing more our homeless services division and alternative restorative justice for young people. So I think that is right.
But from a practical standpoint, you have to know the numbers. I don’t think you can just say we’re going to cut the police budget in half. What does that mean? Does that mean we go from 1,200 hundred officers now we only got 600 in a city of 700,000 people? You have to be able to break down the numbers so that people know what impact their decision is having. I don’t think you can just blindly cut police.
WPLN News: Are you worried at all about the referendum undoing any bit of progress that the city might start to feel in this budget that is proposed?
Toombs: I’m not as worried as I would have been had it gone through last year. Because of COVID, we were looking at a deficit of, I believe, about $300 million and the property tax increase closed that gap.
So had that property tax increase been undone, we would have had to try to fill up a $300 million gap. And there’s only so much cutting you can do to fill that out. We would have had to cut people. I mean, there’s just no way to fill up a hole that large.
But this year, you know, if the referendum were to go through, it would result in a revenue loss of about $40 million. So completely different situations, even though $40 million is still a ton of money. … If we had to cut from our operating budget, we’re cutting services.
WPLN News: One thing that I think is really interesting about you is I feel like you seem to wade away from any political conversation and you’re just like, ‘Let’s get started to the work.’ Is that intentional or is that just like how you are as a person in general?
Toombs: I am very direct. If there is a problem, let’s identify the problem and work towards a solution. So, not to to discredit anyone’s style, but I am not into symbolism and making long speeches.
A lot of times when people are playing politics, they’re dancing around what the problem is, because either they don’t want to take responsibility for it, they don’t want to be blamed, or they don’t have a solution. So you end up dancing around a problem and you never get to the solution.