What’s going on with proposed Nashville charter amendments? Here’s what may be on the ballot for a possible Dec. 5 special election. – The Tennessean

What’s going on with proposed Nashville charter amendments? Here’s what may be on the ballot for a possible Dec. 5 special election.  The Tennessean

“What just happened?” 

It was a reasonable question at last week’s Metro Council meeting after plenty of procedural back-and-forth and shrewd strategy by some members during a debate over a proposal from conservative members and a separate public petition effort to curb the council’s ability to raise property taxes. 

So what did happen?

A majority of members successfully took over legislation from council members Steve Glover and Robert Swope and replaced it with different language that, if placed on the ballot and successfully approved by voters, would make the conservative push effectively meaningless. 

The move to counter and override the petition initiative — dubbed the “Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act” led by local attorney Jim Roberts — by the Metro Council comes as Nashville voters are likely to face the prospect of a special election on Dec. 5.

If the election is held, voters could face the prospect of deciding competing charter amendments. 

On one side is the effort by Roberts that would limit annual property tax increases to 2% without voter approval and require bonds for city projects totaling more than $15 million to go before voters. The group turned in signatures to place the issue on the ballot last month. 

The initial proposal from Glover and Swope would have asked voters to approve similar restrictions, as well as limit the authority of the Metro finance director to set revenue projections. 

On the other side is the language council members pushed through last week, which would effectively reinforce the city’s existing limits on property tax increases, approved by voters in 2006, and its ability to issue bonds without going to voters. 

“It would terribly bog down government and we need to get another item on the ballot to clarify the confusion that thing will create and how the charter is supposed to work,” said At-Large Council Member Bob Mendes, who with Council member Dave Rosenberg, was successful in replacing legislation from Glover and Swope.

The petition from Roberts and Americans For Prosperity, which Mendes called “wildly dangerous” for the city, would create several inconsistencies to the Metro Charter — the city’s governing document.

Nashville’s charter already dictates a public referendum is required to raise the property tax rate above $4.69 per $100 of assessed value in the city’s more urban areas, a cap voters overwhelmingly approved in 2006. The limit was the tax rate at the time of the November 2006 election. The current rate for the Urban Services District, which the council raised this year and is at the center of the debate, is $4.221.

And while there are charter provisions for general obligation bonds, the city issues bonds through state law. Nonetheless, the petition would open the door for “near constant” referendum elections, if it were successful, Mendes argued last week. 

“Our own analysis says it violates state law,” he said. “It’s going to be terrible policy.”

The effort from Glover to cap council’s taxing ability comes as he and others bristle at authority the city’s finance director has over their ability to present their own budget proposals.

Finance Director Kevin Crumbo has declined to set new revenue projections, which has prevented some on the council from trying to lower the 34% property tax rate increase approved earlier this year. 

“I think we need to have a good discussion as opposed to always stepping in and squashing any ideas,” Glover said last week. “I do think it’s only fair that the taxpayers get an opportunity to speak on this. And that’s what I was trying to do with this. I get the fact that we want to squash everything, but I think at some point, we’re gonna have to listen the taxpayers.” 

What happens next can get more complicated. 

Despite the takeover, Glover has filed a new resolution for next week’s council agenda with narrow set of revised charter amendments. 

They would: 

  • Prohibit the property tax rate adopted by the council from increasing more than 12% over a two-year period without approval of the voters at a referendum election. (He previously looked to cap it at a 6% increase each year).
  • Have any state of emergency and emergency health order by the mayor expire after 30 days, unless extended by 14 days at a time by the council with 30 votes.
  • Allow amendments to the Metropolitan Charter to be submitted by petition no more often than once per calendar year instead of once each in two years.

Glover’s proposed amendments, along with Mendes’, will go before the Charter Revision Commission on Friday. 

Historically, the opinion of the seven-member panel has had significant weight on council members. But ultimately the group will offer only a recommendation and can’t stop council members if they vote with a super majority to place a charter amendment on the ballot. 

Each amendment would need to get 27 votes in council on Tuesday to be placed on the ballot. 

The Metro Clerk has yet to determine if a special election will be called as the petition remains under review by the Election Commission.

Roberts and supporters, including members of the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity — founded by the conservative donor network of the billionaire Koch brothers — dropped off about 20,000 signatures to the Metro Clerk on Aug. 26.

Election Administrator Jeff Roberts said he is expecting the process of verifying the signatures to be completed by the end of the week.

If successful, the Dec. 5 special election will come at a cost — about $800,000, which the Election Commission will have to make a budget request for.

If Mendes’ amendment gets on the ballot and both measures fail to receive a majority, the current charter remains in place. If both measure pass, Mendes’ amendment would favor any inconsistencies to the current charter. 

If only the petition amendment passes, it’s likely the city will challenge the change in court. 

Metro Legal is currently reviewing the petition, according to the administration. 

Yihyun Jeong covers politics in Nashville for USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE. Reach her at yjeong@tennessean.com and follow her on Twitter @yihyun_jeong.

Published 6:01 AM EDT Sep 10, 2020