Editor’s column: Assessing John Cooper

September 28, 2020 5:30 am
Mayor John Cooper speaks at his July 16 press conference. (Photo: Metro Nashville Network YouTube channel)

Mayor John Cooper speaks at his July 16 press conference. (Photo: Metro Nashville Network YouTube channel)

One year after John Cooper was inaugurated Nashville mayor, he’s facing the possibility of seeing his signature tax increase rolled back by referendum and talk of a recall campaign. 

Cooper knocked off incumbent Mayor David Briley, first besting him in the August 2019 general election by 10% and then clinching the seat by a whopping 40% margin in the Sept. 12 runoff. 

Cooper positioned himself as “Nashville’s Dad” during the campaign, running on a platform of financial stability and a seemingly endless closet of wholesome cardigans and sturdy shoes. 

On the anniversary of  now-Mayor Cooper’s inauguration, it’s a good time to assess his performance. 

Turns out, all those voters with daddy issues really don’t like a parental figure telling them what to do. Cooper has gotten the biggest knocks on his management of Metro’s funding problems despite his background on Metro Council as a budget hawk and pledges of his ability to stanch the bleeding. But consider the threat of state receivership that loomed over the city during the 2019 mayoral race, a threat resuscitated by Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson at a recent Metro Council meeting and that required decisive action. 

For the win, Cooper saved the city $54 million in financing for the MLS soccer stadium, striking a deal in February. He extracted an additional $19 million from team owner John Ingram to cover infrastructure costs and negotiated out of a clause that would leave Metro on the hook for $35 million owed to the team for gaps between team revenue and lease payments. 

Criticism of Cooper predominantly focuses on two matters: the first is the 34% tax increase Metro Council passed in June that has led a group to call for a December referendum to recall the increase and limit Metro Council’s power to levy taxes in the future. The second is Cooper’s pandemic-related closure of bars, particularly in the tourist-dense Lower Broadway area.

The charge that Cooper would close bars to punish owners is ludicrous, given the amount of revenue the tourist destinations generate for the city.

The tax increase is 2% more than Cooper’s proposed budget, but we won’t quibble over 34% versus 32%. We also won’t debate how Nashville/Davidson County has historically had one of the lowest tax rates in the country, at $3.16 per $100 of assessed value, because as the saying goes, ‘‘if you’re explaining, you’re losing.’’  

But the fact is, city officials have kicked the can down the road on tax increases for years, with the last one being in 2012. Governments have a limited set of ways in which to raise funds, and property taxes are chief among them. Then-Mayor Briley refused to entertain a tax increase in 2019, perhaps because it was an election year, but savvy political observers have known it was only a matter of time until a hike became reality.

What no one could have been planned for was a pandemic. It’s a terrible reality of the past six months that many Nashvillians have lost their jobs, a fact that makes the tax increase more onerous, but the city hasn’t stopped issuing permits or picking up trash. 

And that brings us to my next point, the ludicrous accusation that Cooper has closed bars to punish the very same bar owners who supported his bid for office — and for what?

An August 2019 report showed tourist spending accounted for $7 billion of Nashville’s revenue in fiscal year 2019, ending June 30, 2019. One year later, the same funding source was down for the calendar year by $2.45 billion. There’s no rational reason Cooper and city officials would conspire to hurt the very businesses that fuel the city’s economy. 

Cooper is by no means perfect nor has his management of the city during the pandemic been flawless — there is plenty to criticize and plenty he can improve on  — but he’s in the same boat with the mayors of many cities. Like other mayors, he’s making his best effort at keeping constituents healthy and the city economically afloat in the face of changing protocols and no guidance from either federal or state officials. 

Conservative voters and coalitions, including the same Lower Broadway bar owners now calling for Cooper’s head, enthusiastically backed Cooper in 2019 precisely because of his promise to fix the city’s finances. I argue he’s done exactly what he promised — only not in the way they wanted him to. 

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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.