By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — Mayor John Cooper spent most of his first 100 days trying to keep State Comptroller Justin Wilson away from City Hall.
“Now that we have a balanced budget we’ve removed ourselves from the controls that the state controller’s office has over city finances,” Cooper told the Tribune.
Cooper said finding $42 million to balance last year’s budget wasn’t easy. He did it by trimming $34 million from the Water Department, Music City Center, MDHA, and the Convention & Visitors Corporation. That still left an $8 million shortfall. He took $5 million from the Barnes Fund for affordable housing but promised to put it back.
Last week the City Council approved the “supportive contributions” that Cooper said would be permanent payments every year from independent agencies like NES which paid Metro $28.6 million in taxes last year. Music City Center and the Water Department are now going to kick back money, too.
“I asked for that. I said ‘you need to pay the city some money’ and so they did. It would be the amount of property taxes they would pay if they weren’t a governmental entity,” Cooper said.
Council members praised Cooper for pulling some of the city’s fat out of the fire. “He got us to a balanced budget for FY2019-2020 and the council voted for it,” said At-Large Councilman Steve Glover.
Regarding transparency, another big Cooper priority, Glover likes a new rule he helped pass requiring Metro departments to send financial reports to the council twice a year. (see Why Nashville Needs to Raise Water Rates, Tennessee Tribune, January 2-8, 2020, page 1A)
Glover said he hopes Cooper finds other revenue sources rather than raising property taxes. His biggest concern: “dealing with true priorities vs. wish-list spending in the coming budget”.
District 34 Councilwoman Angie Henderson who chairs the Public Works Committee, wants to see Cooper address the department’s “systemic dysfunction and managerial failures”.
“I think it will be crucial, in this first year especially, and before the mayor’s budget is final, that the administration confer with council members regarding various departments’ operational challenges,” said Henderson.
She said Cooper can’t deliver on his promises unless he addresses the widespread failures in Metro departments “sooner rather than later”.
On Tuesday, Cooper’s office announced the creation of a new Performance Management Team. Diego Equiarte is the new director. Equiarte will report to Chief Operations Officer, Kristin Wilson.
District 9 Councilwoman Tonya Hancock wants the Mayor to provide “the Council a realistic and balanced budget that continues to give raises to teachers, in addition to the police, sheriff’s office, and firefighters, providing for what our city needs, while trimming the excess spending”.
Hancock praised Cooper for getting Metro teachers a 3% Cost of Living Allowance (COLA). But she wished the Mayor had consulted with the Council about funding teachers’ raises permanently. “We need to pay for recurring costs with recurring funds,” she said.
Cooper is ok with that. It’s a big priority. He told the Tribune he wants to put more than half of new city revenues into the school system. He has commissioned a study from experts to make the case for him.
“I don’t know how much money that is exactly until the Education Foundation report comes back to me in the second week of February. It’ll be there in a minute and I’ll use it because I’m going to say ‘that’s what they say. It’s not me making it up. It’s a very careful study that has been done’,” Cooper said.
Cooper released a 4-year Commitment Tracker last week.
“I want to recognize the Mayor and his administration for the work they’ve done over the past 100+ days. I feel the transit listening sessions and “mayor’s nights out” are great ways to reconnect with council members and the community (in) post-campaign mode,” said District 24 Councilwoman Kathleen Murphy.
She said Cooper’s administration is “not sitting back and ignoring that action must take place and take place now”.
However, many of Cooper’s plans are just that, plans. He has created a number of task forces to look into city finances, ethics, affordable housing, capital spending, and immigration policy. Some, like the Immigration Task Force, has completed its study and that ball is now in the Mayor’s court.
Others, like the Public Integrity Task Force, is surveying Metro departments about conflicts of interest in contract-letting but has not collated its findings yet.
“We’re waiting on the Public Integrity Task Force to say we need an Inspector General,” Cooper said. He ran for office on providing sound financial management and getting “our city’s finances back on track”. Cooper thinks an Inspector General would provide the oversight to prevent fraud and waste in government spending.
Cooper has a “Plan to Fix Nashville” he will release in the next two months. “It’s focused less on the departments than by function: fix the Big 5—Capital Investment, Education, Public Safety, Transportation, Affordable Housing, and really, Neighborhood Investment because, in terms of changing the government, a lot of that ends up in the budget,” he said.
Budget requests from city departments are due January 24; budget meetings will happen in February; Cooper will submit his budget to Metro Council by March 31; the council will have from April 1 to May 31 to debate it. The city will submit a final budget to the State Comptroller by June 1, 2020.
Things Cooper Has Done:
1. Balanced the 2019-20 budget.
2. Convinced Music City Center and Water Services to pay $12.6 and $10 million in taxes.
3. Took $17.5 million from a downtown pedestrian bridge project and is spending $13.6 million on culverts and bridges in 24 districts.
4. Sponsored legislation with At-Large Councilman Bob Mendez to fully itemize and appropriate funds for public projects before construction begins on projects over $5 million.
5. Gave Metro schoolteachers a 3% raise.
6. Got MNPD and the Community Oversight Board to negotiate a memorandum of Understanding.
7. Rented jail cells to the U.S. Marshall Service.
8. Cooper nominated, and the council approved, seven appointments to city boards and commissions since he took office. Three were filled by African Americans.
9. Introduced legislation with District 34 Councilwoman Angie Henderson to plant more trees to replace the ones gentrification has destroyed.
Things Cooper Has Not Done
1. More than three months ago, the Mayor said he would make a decision about the Soccer Stadium in early October 2019.
2. City Hall has not responded to numerous queries about the fate of the Fairgrounds. As we have reported, the deal is so bad, not even the bonders will loan Metro $280-$350 million to build it. (The estimated costs keep rising.)
3. A few changes at the top are not leading to change within Metro departments. Cooper has not asked enough people to advise him who have been harmed by inequitable hiring practices and insider deal-making.
4. Cooper has not gotten MNPD to stop “Driving While Black” law enforcement and embrace a more positive community policing strategy.
5. The Mayor has not ordered another study by the Human Relations Commission to assess Metro hiring practices. The 2015 IncluCivics Report needs to be updated.
6. Cooper had to find $41.5 million to balance last year’s budget. We found $55 million wasted in a sweetheart contract with the software giant, Oracle, Inc. He hasn’t addressed the issue publicly.
7. See Commitment Tracker here: https://www.nashville.gov/Mayors-Office.aspx.