Anti-tax crusaders wore fluorescent yellow T-shirts with the word “TAX” crossed out as they hammered Metro’s “spending problem.” Their counterparts recited the message of “moving Nashville forward.”
But now that last week’s three-hour-plus citizens’ hearing on Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed $1.71 billion budget and a 53-cent property tax hike is in the backdrop, the ball is in the court of 40 council members. Between now and a definitive third vote on Dean’s tax increase on June 19, those who want to emerge as compromisers will get out their proverbial reading glasses to see whether Dean’s tax-rate increase can be reduced.
“We’re all absolutely focused in on trying to figure out if there are ways that we can make cuts to reduce the amount of the tax increase,” the Metro Council’s Budget and Finance Committee chairman Sean McGuire told The City Paper.
“I’m fairly confident that we’ll be able to produce some sort of reduction,” he added. “Now, what exactly that reduction will be remains to be seen. But that’s certainly my intention, and I know it’s the intention of many other members of the council. I would frankly be surprised if we vote to approve the proposed rate increase by the mayor.”
Despite the sturm and drang over the tax issue — a loud debate between “investing in Nashville’s future” versus raising taxes during a “stagnant” economy — city hall observers believe Dean’s case for at least some level of tax increase enjoys at least 28 “aye” votes in the council.
Those odds seem to eliminate the possibility of a substitute budget with no tax increase trumping Dean’s proposal and gaining approval. More likely is the scenario that an alternative budget with a smaller tax rate increase gains steam. But don’t expect Dean’s 53-cent tax rate request to be trimmed by a quarter — a nickel reduction, or even less, seems more likely after conversations this week.
Historically, the council tweaks Nashville mayors’ proposed budgets at least slightly every year. Unlike the past seven budgets, this one relies on tax increase. For an alternative budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year to reach the full council for a vote, the plan must first garner the support of McGuire’s Budget and Finance Committee, which is still in the process of holding budget hearings with Metro department heads.
Councilman Steve Glover, elected last fall after serving a stint on the Metro school board, has been skirting the council’s committee system, holding his own “roundtable” meetings with council colleagues at his work office to discuss Dean’s budget. The Donelson-area councilman emphasized that council members “don’t vote on anything” at his publicized meetings. “We just talk,” he said. “We share things. We ask questions.”
The gatherings have focused on a central theme: Are there ways to lower Dean’s tax-rate increase request?
“If you knew me on the school board, I’m obviously always looking at ways we can try to be a little more efficient,” Glover said. “So, that’s obviously the objective here.”
Those who Glover has said attended the meetings include Council members Josh Stites, Davette Blalock, Jason Holleman, Scott Davis, Duane Dominy, Jacobia Dowell, Sheri Weiner and Charlie Tygard. “There’s been about 10 or 11 of us,” he said.
“The real nature of the meetings is to say, ‘All right, if we cut here, what might be the implications, what might be the unintended consequences?’ ” Glover said. “When you’re sitting at a roundtable, you can kind of just throw it all out there.
“I don’t know what the answer is yet,” Glover said of potentially trimming Dean’s tax-rate increase. He added he would explore whether it’s “realistic” to lower it by three cents, five cents, 25 cents, and even implementing no tax increase. If a tax increase is the answer, he said, he’d like it to be the last hike for a while. “For me, I’m going to go through every department and look at every penny that I possibly can.”
But there might not be too much wiggle room to lessen the tax-rate increase and still achieve the budgetary goals of Dean’s administration.
After two years of restructuring the city’s debt, Metro has several fixed budgetary obligations. Dean has tried to remind citizens that the size of Metro government has decreased during his tenure. “After four years, there is little fat left,” Dean has said, arguing that a failure to increase Davidson County’s property tax rate could “cut into muscle” in the form of eliminating hundreds of teachers and police personnel.
Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling, asked about reducing the mayor’s 53-cent property tax increase, said the administration submitted a budget it feels represents the best course for Nashville.
“We’re not going to draw a line in the sand and say it has to be our way,” he said. “But we feel pretty strongly in what we proposed.”
Riebeling said if the council wants to reduce the tax increase currently on the table, it would have to show what areas of government doing so would affect. “We’ll take a look at it, and if we don’t feel it hurts the city, we could be supportive of it,” he said. “But we’re not going to back off what we think is in the best interests of the city.”
The biggest recipient of Dean’s tax increase would be Metro Nashville Public Schools, with the district’s proposed $720.4 million operating budget amounting to a $46.4 million increase over the current fiscal year. The mayor and Director of Schools Jesse Register have proposed increasing the starting salary of teachers from $35,000 to $40,000 to compete with similar-sized cities for top-tier instructors. A robust capital-spending plan includes $97 million for school infrastructure, including long-awaited school building renovations.
Behind the scenes, council members have informally discussed reducing the increase to Metro schools, though such a maneuver would be politically choppy to navigate. Nonetheless, some want to know whether the city’s investment in schools would pay dividends.
At Wednesday’s schools budget hearing with the council, Register faced tough questions from Councilwoman Emily Evans, who challenged the superintendent on what the district would “consider success” over the next year when it comes to state-mandated test scores. Register said he would like to “significantly” raise student achievement levels and “close the achievement gap.”
Register declined to define “significant” when Evans asked him to do so. Evans responded: “I’m sorry to hear that.”
The following day, Evans told The City Paper, “Everybody wants the schools to be successful ... but we need to know what success will look like, and we need to be able to measure it.”
She added: “I don’t think Dr. Register and the school board did anything to endorse the view that money is the obstacle to their success. There appeared to be other issues that are preventing success, and one of those is the ability to identify what success is.”
Another beneficiary of Dean’s tax increase is southeast Davidson County. The mayor’s budget includes a new bus rapid-transit “lite” line along Murfreesboro Pike, along with heavy infrastructure spending in the Antioch area. Nonetheless, Antioch is also home to Dean’s most outspoken tax-hike opponent: Councilman Robert Duvall.
Duvall expressed doubt that he would propose a substitute budget that requires no property tax increase. “It’s difficult in the short window that we’re given, especially when you’re pretty much a one-man band.”
Duvall, who still hopes a budget without a tax increase could materialize, said he’s heard discussions about “pooling resources” between Metro departments to save revenue and talks of “the schools’ budget being too high.” He indicated he’s still sizing up the situation: “At this point, I’ve got notes. There’s things I’d like to do. I would like to evaluate them.”
At-large Councilman Ronnie Steine, one of only five sitting council members who has ever voted on a property tax increase, said he anticipates the council “is going to put its mark on this budget at least a little, maybe a lot.”
“There are a lot of people floating the notion of a few pennies worth of cuts,” he said. “But I’m not sure anybody is floating the same cuts yet.
“I think the case has been that a substantial amount of the mayor’s proposal we are locked into, and if we don’t raise revenues to cover those, we will have substantial cuts,” Steine said. “The big discussion for council is over what’s really discretionary and what’s not.”