Three things to watch as Nashville Mayor Cooper unveils budget

John Cooper takes the oath of office on Saturday, September 30th at Stratford STEM Magnet High School in East Nashville as the ninth mayor of Nashville's metropolitan government. (Photo: Nashville.gov)
John Cooper takes the oath of office on Saturday, September 30th at Stratford STEM Magnet High School in East Nashville as the ninth mayor of Nashville's metropolitan government. (Photo: Nashville.gov)

Nashville Mayor John Cooper will make the annual state of Metro address on Thursday, providing the first insight into his budget priority for the fiscal year ahead.

A year ago, Cooper foreshadowed the 34 percent property tax increase during his first state of Metro speech. 

Nashville is still dealing with the pandemic, with the city’s focus shifting soon from public health orders that affected everyday life to continuing a vaccine rollout. The city is also still recovering from last year’s tornado, a Christmas morning suicide bombing and the deadly flooding earlier this year.

In terms of Metro, the council will consider the economic improvement plan for the River North property, including a $175 million infrastructure arrangement with tech giant Oracle.

Here are three key questions heading into Cooper’s second budget

What about the property tax rate?

This is a confusing issue, made all the muddier by an odd set of television interviews Cooper did earlier this month touting the fact that Davidson County’s property tax rate will be coming down. This is true, but it won’t mean tax bills are reduced.

Thanks to property tax reappraisals, which saw property values rise by 34 percent, the city must reduce the tax rate in order to avoid collecting a windfall in accordance with state law.

Cooper seemed to indicate that he won’t propose raising the tax rate after the readjustment. Prior to those TV interviews, there was speculation that Cooper and budget chair Councilwoman Kyontze Toombs may propose a modest rate reduction.

Critics say last year’s tax increase was too steep and should have been accompanied by more spending cuts. Since then, the city saw its sales tax collections come in better than expected. Additionally, between money coming directly to Metro and funds earmarked for Metro Nashville Public Schools, the city will see a combined $710 million in federal stimulus dollars in the next two years. It’s reasonable to wonder if those factors will lead to a property tax break for Nashvillians.

Nashville is still recovering from the pandemic, last year’s tornado, a Christmas morning suicide bombing and deadly flooding earlier this year.

Teacher salaries

Cooper told the Tennessee Lookout a year ago that the top goal he was unable to accomplish due to the pandemic was addressing teacher pay.

A teacher compensation study released in early 2020 revealed that it would cost Metro a combined $41.8 million annually to: 1. Accelerate the curve for pay raises in order to retain top teachers earlier in their careers, 2. Make MNPS teachers the best-paid in the state and 3. Stabilize the pay for staff at high-needs schools.

MNPS is engaged in vitally important litigation over Tennessee’s education funding formula. School districts say the state is especially under-funding teacher salaries, leaving local school districts to pick up the slack. Here is a story about this issue published earlier this year by the Tennessee Lookout.

Committing city dollars to meet the recommendations of the compensation study is not a panacea for Nashville teachers, but it would be a major investment by Metro at a time when the district is asking more of its educators.

Mass transit funding

A year ago, WeGo, the city’s public transportation agency, received $20 million in federal funding from President Donald Trump’s CARES Act. That money defrayed Metro’s contribution to the department mainly responsible for Davidson County’s bus system.

Cooper’s administration is in the early stages of a broader mass transit plan. But, a central question regarding the upcoming budget is if the city will replace last year’s federal funds and possibly earmark more operating revenue to add more bus routes. The WeGo board of directors requested an additional $3.2 million in order to start the “better bus” improvements spelled out in Cooper’s transportation plan.

Giving MTA its full allotment will show the Cooper administration is serious about its commitment to mass transit.