It would have been almost unthinkable that in his first year in office, Mayor John Cooper would be picking up the phone to call Nashville powerbrokers and community groups to start organizing another campaign — this time to keep the city’s sizeable property tax increase (which he lobbied for) intact.
With the looming risk of a $322 million budget shortfall mid-fiscal year if a referendum to rollback the increase is successful, an army of Nashville business heavyweights, unions and community organizations are actively in talks to organize a campaign to defeat the proposed Metro Charter amendment.
The Cooper administration has recently focused its attention on the legal issues swirling around the petition under review by the Metro Election Commission as it gears up to vote Friday whether to hold a December special election. But Cooper is already taking steps to form an offensive scheme against the measure led by a local attorney and conservative activists.
He’s been in strategy talks with Metro lobbyists and political consultants Greg Hinote, Dave Cooley and Jerry Maynard, confirmed Cooper spokesperson Chris Song.
His conversations extend beyond the three, Song said Tuesday, and include a wide swath of groups — with business and labor leaders and local coalitions “who want to protect Nashville’s future.”
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The administration last week provided its first messaging on the issue, publicly outlining what city officials say will be the dire situation Nashville will face if the 34% property tax increase is repealed — severe cuts to Metro services and massive layoffs.
Song said Cooper, as validated by the state comptroller, believes it’s “absolutely vital” for the city to avoid a retroactive multi-million budget shortfall with just six months left in the budget year.
“Emergency response times, road repair, trash pick-up, and other vital city services hang in the balance,” Song said. “And if our city cannot meet these basic obligations, the property values and quality of life for every resident and business owner in Davidson County will go down.”
When a campaign committee is created, Cooper will be contributing his own money to the effort.
The referendum fray ahead means he will have to put aside differences with those that backed his opponent, former Mayor David Briley, in last year’s mayoral race and for those that have been at odds with Cooper to work parallel with him.
The risks are too great, say those against the referendum.
“Anybody who cares about the future of the city has to step up and put their baggage at the door. There’s an understanding the stakes are higher than the other crap that we carry around,” said one Metro political consultant.
But those familiar with talks also express the need to strike a delicate balance between working with the administration and not having their efforts Cooper-branded.
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Communicating vision for the city
Cooper, who won in a landslide mayoral runoff last September and received an 80% approval rating in May — the highest rating of any Nashville mayor since Vanderbilt University first conducted its annual poll in 2015 — has faced extreme criticism in recent weeks about his handling of COVID-19 and his push for a property tax hike.
A recent FOX17 story, though falsely accusing the administration of hiding coronavirus statistics, has even revived talks of a potential recall of Cooper.
“There’s an attempt to gather the leadership and have key people say it’s bad for the city. What’s different (from previous referendums) is that the ‘leadership’ have been absolutely AWOL during the COVID crisis,” said a former Metro elected official.
“Does Cooper have the credibility to do this? I would say no. It’ll fall to a grassroots effort to make the bad policy argument.”
A successful campaign to defeat the referendum will have to focus on every day voters, said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, saying a significant amount of money will need to be raised for a campaign that should include parents with children in schools, Nashville businesses and city’s first responders.
“There’s got to be a very effective communications effort that lets people understand the consequences of voting down the tax increase and the profound changes the referendum will make to Metro government moving forward,” he said.
The “kitchen sink referendum,” as Syler describes it, also looks to limit annual property tax increases to 2% without voter approval and to require bonds for city projects totaling more than $15 million to go before voters, among other measures.
It could fundamentally change the way Nashville is governed — from a representative government where people are elected to make the decisions to a direct democracy.
“A lot of the time that doesn’t work well for large areas of populations,” he said.
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A referendum on ‘every elected official’
For many frustrated by the city’s fiscal management over the past decade, the 34% property tax hike approved by Metro Council was a breaking point.
“It’s just a Band-Aid that allows the bad behavior to continue,” said Tori Venable, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee, a Koch Network-funded group that is working with local attorney Jim Roberts to push the referendum. “People are angry and want the tax repealed and to enact good government reforms to prevent getting in this position again.”
Venable and Roberts describe the messaging already coming out from the other side as “doom-and-gloom scare tactics.”
“They can bad mouth us all they want but the bottom line is we’ve had 10 years of growth and what do we have to show for it? Ten years of mismanagement and misplaced priorities is not my fault,” Roberts said.
Roberts and AFP dropped off nearly 20,000 signatures in August and have since received hundreds more petitions, according to Roberts. The next step is for the election commission to vote on whether to place the measure on the ballot, since enough signatures were gathered.
Roberts said he was well on the way to collecting enough signatures when AFP began to also gather them in an effort to put the measure on the ballot.
Syler said it could be argued the referendum is not only on the tax increase but also on every elected official in Nashville. And to some extent, the businesses and tourism community and others who have been beneficiaries of Metro’s money.
“Most political races are a combination of a lot of different feelings for voters,” he said. “One of the real questions over the last several years, has been ‘how did things get so far out of balance?'”
Jason Freeman, political director of SEIU Local 205, disagreed with the notion of a referendum on officials, and instead, characterized efforts as those of “outside agitators” interested in inserting chaos, and not representative of most Nashville residents.
“I think the majority of Davidson County (residents) understand our budget problems and what we need to do,” Freeman said. “Unfortunately a very vocal, outsized minority of people, are making their voices extra loud right now.”
The voters, he said, understood the need for a tax increase when they went to the polls in 2019.
Mendes, who proposed a property tax increase two years in a row, was the only at-large candidate to avoid a runoff. Four of the five elected countywide council members said during their campaigns that they were open to a tax increase, along with a majority of the council.
Council Member Kyonzté Toombs, who now serves as budget chair, beat out an incumbent who attempted the epithet, “Property Tax Toombs,” in the most high-profile race that centered on tax.
Voter fatigue and turnout
Results of the November election could have implications for the referendum, as both sides agree there’ll be a short window between then and possible special election in early December that would change campaign strategies.
With no doubt of voter fatigue, Syler said it will come down to which side does the best in “getting out the vote.”
The anti-referendum campaign, he said, has a more difficult challenge ahead. People are resistant to change and don’t like to see taxes go up. The pro-referendum side has a natural “bumper sticker slogan” to repeal the increase.
“It’s a lot easier to defeat change than to win an issue,” Syler said. “With all the tough issues facing Nashville’s budget and the consequences, it requires explanation that a lot of the time, we don’t want to hear.
“There’s a saying in politics, ‘When you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
But Cooper’s favorability shouldn’t be underestimated, he said, as Cooper gained credibility with outlying communities on the campaign trail.
“He won a very very significant victory. If he can hold that base together that helped get him elected that will help,” Syler said. “He’s got to communicate that he’s handling the crisis and has a plan.”
But some of the conservative activists and council members who are backing a repeal of the property tax increase supported Cooper in 2019 over Briley. And a lack of communication is a large part of why former Council Member Charlie Tygard said he is dismayed by Cooper’s performance so far in office.
Tygard, who had contributed to Cooper’s mayoral run and held a neighborhood fundraising event in Bellevue, said he signed the petition this summer and for now, plans to vote for the referendum.
“I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing but I signed to put it on the ballot. Let the majority rule,” he told The Tennessean last week.
“The city is still spending money like we’re cash plush when we are broke,” said the former fiscal hawk on the council.
The issue, he said, should not be “bogged down” by litigation and “finger pointing.”
At-large Council Member Steve Glover said if the referendum is blocked, he will lead a new effort himself and get a measure on the ballot that he said he will get passed.
“They’re not going to hold us, the people of Nashville back,” he said.
But Glover declined to share how he would vote on the issue if it goes to the ballot.
“I don’t tell anyone how I’m going to voter other than I’m voting for President Trump,” he said. “But if the people say ‘No we want the increase,’ I will honor it and quit talking on the spot.”
Glover’s feelings toward Cooper have taken a sharp turn since the campaign when he proudly claimed during the runoff that he and Cooper were more aligned than any other two council members.
Last week, he spoke on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News, lambasting the administration as a “far-left liberal group,” and said “We’re working on it,” when asked by Carlson why Cooper hasn’t been removed.
His relationship with the mayor, Glover told The Tennessean last week, changed this spring. He said he attempted to level with Cooper about the significant tax increase, but instead, was given a lecture.
“I said ‘I thought we were friends’ and he said ‘Well we’re not.’ At that moment I was done and walked out,” Glover said.
“The conservatives helped him get elected and he turned his back on us,” he said.
Unions to fight tax repeal
Meanwhile, unions have played a more powerful role in Nashville in recent years, as they’ve flexed their ability to effectively mobilize street-level campaigns. Already several groups are texting and calling each other to discuss what a tax repeal would look like for them, said Mark Young, president of the Nashville Firefighters Association.
Young said his union is working on a fire department specific campaign, using resources from the international association while working with the other unions to build up at a campaign for a boarder message to voters. There’s already discussions to use social media, possibly purchase billboards and spend money on TV ads and mailers.
“This looks bad overall but really bad for public safety,” Young said.
Early figure crunching shows a 35% budget slash to the fire department’s budget with cuts to over 550 positions, 12 ambulances and fire station closures.
The outlook for police looks similar, with a reduction of nearly a third of the force and possibly closing four of the eight precincts due to officer shortages.
It would be “devastating blow” to public safety, said Fraternal Order of Police President James Smallwood, who said members will have to be consulted on how involved the union will get in a campaign against the referendum.
“Nashville needed to adjust the property tax rate for some time. Unfortunately legislators kicked the can down the road year after year. This year, we’re facing a budget crisis on top of the other things 2020 has brought for us,” Smallwood said.
For Nashville schools, officials are discussing the ramifications of a potential of a 25% budget cut with another semester left in the school year.
Already the district has struggled to afford textbooks and pay for teacher salary increases.
“The referendum not only is immediately catastrophic for schools, but it prevents there ever being enough to meet needs,” said Amanda Kail, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association.
Budget constraints have also crowded out salaries for Metro employees, who have not seen step-increases for several years.
“There’s been a whole lot of disappointment,” Young said. “But we have to lay all of this on a different scale and pay attention to the bigger picture of what’s ahead.”
Yihyun Jeong covers politics in Nashville for USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @yihyun_jeong.
Published 11:00 PM EDT Sep 23, 2020