“Metro has a spending problem” emerged as a reoccurring battle cry among those sporting fluorescent yellow shirts at the Metro Council Tuesday night. They were the ones lined up to oppose Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed 53-cent property tax increase.
These Nashvillians took turns hammering what would amount to a 13 percent bump on their property tax payments during “the worst economy of our lives,” as one tax-hike critic put it. Their message to the council: Vote down Dean’s tax plan. And their pleas were passionate.
“I can’t think of a worse time to raise taxes that specifically increase businesses’ rent,” Mia Calderon, a realtor who works in East Nashville, told the council. “This is not only a direct tax on our mom-and-pop small businesses but on the families that support them.”
But before they had their say, Dean enjoyed an equally strong showing Tuesday of budget supporters, those who said a sacrifice is sometimes required to ensure key government services. Many highlighted items the tax increase would deliver: a long-awaited pay increase for Metro employees and bump in teacher salaries, the renovation of dilapidated school buildings, expanded transit services and a full stable of cops patrolling Nashville’s streets.
“No one, including myself, has ever wanted an additional tax increase,” said Al Cocke, who pointed out this city has “been through these battles many times before” during previous mayoral leadership.
“But, there are certain things that you’re willing to pay for if you’re going to move a city forward like this,” he said.
Approximately 500 people poured in the Metro courthouse Tuesday for the council’s lone scheduled public hearing to weigh in on Dean’s proposed budget and property tax increase, which would be Davidson County’s first in seven years. Dean has painted a harsh alternative that includes sharp reductions in teacher and police personnel.
In the end, Dean’s budget cleared the council’s second of three votes Tuesday on a voice vote with few objections, but the move was purely procedural to advance it to committee. The real test comes later this month when the mayor’s $1.71 billion budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year –– and the property tax increase to pay for it –– heads to the council for a final vote.
On Tuesday, Nashvillians took the floor for more than three hours, with both sides of the tax hike debate sharing an amount of equal time.
“This is an important step in the budget process, that we hear directly from the taxpayers, and that they voice their opinions,” Metro Councilman Jason Holleman said afterwards, still undecided on how he’ll ultimately vote.
Ashley Croft, a Metro teacher for four years, said she works a part-time retail job to make extra income, making the case for lifting Metro’s starting teacher salary to $40,000, a key part of Dean’s case for a tax increase. Dean wants to raise teacher salaries to compete with peer cities for instructors.
“Each summer around this time, I start looking at job listings in other parts of the city or other parts of the country, knowing that I simply need more to support myself,” Croft said.
But James Keeton of Cane Ridge said, “It would be foolish to continue to spend more in the face of the realities of this downturn,” adding that it is “easy to reach into someone else’s pocket for a request. Government does that quite well.
“Many say that not voting for the mayor’s budget would be a step back,” he said. “Stepping back’s not always a bad thing.”
Metro’s budget process continues Wednesday when Director of Schools Jesse Register and the nine-member school board give its budget presentation before the council. Metro schools’ dollar-amount request exceeds the current year’s education spending by $46.4 million.