Nashville council members adopted a 34% property tax hike and approved a spending plan that increases funding for the police department and provides more dollars for local public schools — including a contingency fund that could go toward teacher raises.
Metro Council voted 32-8 to approve a budget by Budget Chair and At-large Council member Bob Mendes after hours of fierce debate Tuesday night and into early Wednesday morning.
The budget, in effect on July 1, increases Davidson County’s property tax rate by $1.066 per $100 of assessed value.
This moves the rate from $3.155 to $4.221 per $100 of assessed value in the city’s more urban areas. For a home appraised at $250,000, that would mean an increase of about $666.25 per year. The new tax rate will remain the lowest among Tennessee’s largest cities and counties.
CALCULATOR: How much more will you pay in property taxes under Nashville’s new budget?
The spending plan, which council members adopted over the budget proposed by Mayor John Cooper, gives 1% cost-of-living increases to city employees, $7.6 million more funding to the school district and another $4.9 million to bring minimum wage up to $15 per hour for district employees.
“I appreciate the community, the council and the administration all working so hard on the budget in these difficult times,” Mendes told The Tennessean early Wednesday morning. “This isn’t where anyone wants to be, but Nashville is strong and we will come through this mess together.”
Restoring a $2.6 million increase in funding for police, which the department said is needed to hire 48 recruits, came well past midnight and is a blow to several council members and community advocates who called for reduced funding. Cooper’s plan had included the increase.
The consequential budget vote came as a rally took place on the lawn outside the Metro Courthouse calling for a divestment from policing and incarceration and investment in other areas of the community. It’s an emphatic message heard in Nashville in recent weeks and across the country as protesters challenge officials to reimagine public safety.
The amendment from Council member Russ Pulley eliminated step increases for nearly 6,000 Metro employees, such as for police, fire and public works, in order to boost dollars for police. He later voted against the amended budget.
Asked if Cooper lobbied council members for increasing police funding, Cooper spokesperson Chris Song told The Tennessean that Cooper called several council members to discuss the budget, as has been typical of previous mayors. He referred to the contents of the amendments to get a “sense” of what was discussed on those calls.
Song said the administration was pleased with the budget outcome, calling “adequate funding” for police an important component in delivering a spending plan that provides a continuity of services.
Council members also approved an effort from At-large Council member Zulfat Suara to reroute $8.2 million from the school district’s savings, a move opposed by the administration and Mendes, to place in a contingency fund for teacher raises.
It includes a caveat that the fund balance must stay above 3%, as required by state law. It could potentially be a hurdle as the district may dip into the fund for the nearly $4.6 million overspent by its nutrition department feeding students and families during the pandemic. Unknown federal stimulus funds for schools could play a role.
The district had asked for $15 million more in funding for the next school year. School board budget chair Gini Pupo-Walker, who endorsed Mendes’ budget, told The Tennessean Tuesday night the board will have to work with finance to consider using the new funds for raises, as it hadn’t been previously discussed.
Amanda Kail, president of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, called it a creative solution, which is important to find especially during the ongoing crisis.
“The overwhelming support for this budget, in particular funding for the schools, is a big victory for MNPS, for our kids,” Kail said. “Public education is the biggest investment in equity we can make. That investment has been neglected for far too long.”
The district serves more that 85,000 students, with more than 70% is made up of minority students — the largest group being Black students.
Teachers advocated for years to get the city to understand the importance of school funding, Kail said. But she said they were successful in getting council members elected in who supported schools and more funding for them.
“Teachers didn’t sit by and let out students’ future slip by. I’m feeling very proud of that today,” she said.
Brad Rayson, president SEIU Local 205, which represents district support staff and Metro employees, said raising minimum wage is a “moral imperative” rather than a radical idea.
“Over 1500 Metro Schools employees are now better able to keep up with the rising cost of living in our city and provide a better life for themselves and their families,” Rayson said in a statement. “We thank Councilman Mendes for making this a priority of his budget, and all the courageous Council Members who did the right thing in this difficult moment. While we don’t agree with everything in this budget, we commend all who resisted the calls for layoffs and instead chose to lead our city out of difficult economic conditions rather than make them worse.”
Tax increase first since 2012
The new tax rate, the first increase in Nashville since 2012, is the largest jump in Metro’s history. A considerable hike was almost guaranteed entering into the budget debate, though council members Steve Glover and Freddie O’Connell sought to drive it lower as Nashville continues to grapple with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
None of the four budgets considered Tuesday night, city leaders contend, transform the city’s public education or transit systems, nor reinvent public safety. Instead, the spending plan is a “crisis” budget that avoids layoffs, retains essential services and, with even small increases in funding amounts, shows the city’s priorities.
A competing budget from Glover failed to get enough votes while O’Connell withdrew his on the floor. Glover’s budget included major cuts and a large wheel tax increase while O’Connell’s relied on a federal program to free up local money.
“The crisis budget approved tonight stabilizes Metro’s finances and maintains essential services,” Cooper said in a statement early Wednesday morning. “The large tax increase is something I would not have considered were we not facing Nashville’s greatest financial challenge. I thank (Mendes) and Council for their leadership.
The budget process, he said, is “proof positive” that there can be a collaborative working relationship in Nashville politics.
“The end result, a budget built on compromise and full of tough choices, provides stable financial footing for our city’s future,” he said in the statement.
The mayor’s proposal would have increased the property tax rate by $1 per $100 of assessed value, or about 32% in the Urban Services District, to generate new revenue to largely replenish funds that have been drained by the city’s ongoing financial issues. It would further slash funds in other areas, looked to freeze employee pay and keep the school budget flat — though it included funds to bring the minimum wage up.
Because of the coronarivus pandemic, officials projected in April the city could lose as much as $470 million in revenue over a 16-month period. City officials do not plan on updating revenue projections until August. Council members will receive a new projection then to potentially readjust the tax rate ahead of when property tax bills go out to residents in October.
Spending plan amendments
Several council members earlier in the night were unsuccessful in making reductions to police funding. Mendes’ original budget, as submitted, kept the police budget flat at the $209 million in the current year.
Council member Ginny Welsch had the most far-reaching plan to reduce police funding by $108 million and funding for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office by $3.5 million. Her amendment closely aligned with thousands who called for a reduction in a recent survey by the Nashville People’s Budget Coalition.
“I respectfully asked my colleagues to support the amendment and not be afraid,” Welsch said, adding it should not be considered radical when it’s not considered to be when police are funded at the expense of other departments and schools.
“Let’s begin to look at a new way of defining our community and what makes our community safe.”
The call for defunding police locally has been spearheaded locally by the coalition of Nashville activist organizations, including Black Lives Matter Nashville; Free Hearts; Gideon’s Army; Music City Riders United’ No Exceptions Prison Collective; People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing, & Equity; Southerners on New Ground Nashville; and Workers’ Dignity / Dignidad Obrera.
For the first time this year, the coalition worked to break down complex city finances to help residents understand the process and how they can enact change at the local level.
Organizer Gicola Lane with Free Hearts — an advocacy group led by formerly incarcerated women to reduce female incarceration — described it as an “automatic win,” that Mendes revised his budget to eliminate new funding for police rather than increase it. The move came after a marathon public hearing on June 2.
“People have come together for collective change. This is a win, so people shouldn’t feel defeated tonight regardless of what happens,” Lane told The Tennessean Tuesday, ahead of the council meeting. “What we want to see done is a shift in resources in Nashville and the second biggest line item for cops and cages, to go to us.”
Lane said she hopes the budget is only the beginning of a conversation that has started for a new vision for the city and that elected officials must be pushed to have the will to do something that helps the community.
Calls for defunding police are not new. Some seek reduced funding, while some call for a complete abolishment. The idea is that public funds would be spent on schools, health care and other social services rather than a system of punishment.
Glover said he would not be apologetic for his support for police, adding he would only trust trained first responders to respond to emergencies.
“This seems to be some sort of ‘movement’ going on across the country right now,” he said. “I do not support this. I will stand firmly and strongly with the men and women who serve us every day.”
Fraternal Order of Police President James Smallwood balked at the notion of no law enforcement, previously telling The Tennessean Nashville would be driven into “chaos.”
The police department, he said, is already underfunded, almost “by design” that makes it “impossible to build positive community relationships.”
Smallwood said robust community programs are certainly needed, as are more officers working to build strong ties with the communities they serve. He admitted Nashville police needed to do a better job rebuilding relationships with minority communities.
That goes back to funding, he said. The problem, he said, is that the department’s funding makes it difficult to put time and money into police-sponsored community activities and engagement with neighborhoods.
Council members Emily Benedict, Colby Sledge and Sean Parker voted in support of Welsch’s amendment while some, voting against the measure, said they hope the city can still work toward achieving a new vision for policing.
Other key funding, police reforms
Mendes’ approved budget has less than a 1% difference from Cooper’s budget in how funds are appropriated. Some key differences include:
- 1% cost-of-living adjustments for Metro employees
- $3.9 million for Rainy Day Fund
- $3.5 million for Metro Arts Commission
- $2 million for Summer Youth employment (Opportunity Now)
- $1 million for GRAD program
- $450,000 to open community centers on Saturday mornings
- $262,000 for the Planning Department to implement plans to enforce “SP” zoning
- $150,000 for Alignment Nashville
- $150,000 for Small Business Incentive
- $137,500 for Nashville Public Education Foundation
- $90,000 for Nashville Business Incubation Center
- $85,000 to fund remote IT position for Juvenile Court Clerk
- $75,000 for Adventure Science Museum
- $75,000 for Entrepreneur Center
- $75,000 Nashville Civic Design Center
- $50,000 for Tennessee State University economic development grant
- $40,000 for Sister Cities
- $25,000 for each for the Black Chamber of Commerce, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the LGBT Chamber of Commerce
- Elimination of funding for the Andrew Jackson Foundation
Next year’s budget also includes $2.1 million to implement a full police body-worn camera program by Jan. 1, and funding for a city chief diversity officer and workforce diversity manager.
An amendment from Council member John Rutherford to move some money to fund a Veteran Services Officer position for $62,000 was also successful Tuesday night. Meanwhile, efforts by several council members to lower the tax levy in Mendes’ budget failed — including from Council member Angie Henderson who sought to zero out $1.5 million in economic incentives and increase the wheel tax.
Glover’s budget also looked to increase the wheel tax, which faced questions from the administration on whether it should be considered a tax or a fee, both of which would require other legislative steps.
Nashville council members are also taking up separate legislation addressing policing and the criminal justice system, including:
- Reducing or eliminating Metro’s court fines and fees
- Prohibiting the police department from hiring officers who were previously fired or under investigation by another law enforcement agency for malfeasance or use of force
- Incorporating certain limitations on police use of force.
How council members voted on Mendes’ budget:
Yes: Bob Mendes, Sharon Hurt, Burkley Allen, Zulfat Suara, Kyonzté Toombs, Jennifer Gamble, Sean Parker, Brett Withers, Emily Benedict, Nancy VanReece, Tonya Hancock, Zach Young, Erin Evans, Brad Bradford, Jeff Syracuse, Ginny Welsch, Colby Sledge, Tom Cash, Freddie O’Connell, Mary Carolyn Roberts, Brandon Taylor, Gloria Hauser, Kathleen Murphy, Robert Nash, Tanaka Vercher, Delishia Porterfield, Sandra Sepulveda, John Rutherford, Joy Styles, Antoinette Lee, Angie Henderson, Dave Rosenberg.
No: Steve Glover, Jonathan Hall, Robert Swope, Larry Hagar, Kevin Rhoten, Thom Druffle, Russ Pulley, Courtney Johnston.
Includes reporting by Brinley Hineman.
Yihyun Jeong covers politics in Nashville for USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE. Reach her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @yihyun_jeong.
Published 4:37 PM EDT Jun 17, 2020