By John Cooper
Nashville is at a crossroads. For the past four years, I have served as an at-large Metro Council member. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about how this city is being run. What I’ve learned concerns me. Simply put, the Mayor’s office has lost track of the public’s priorities. It values promoting development, not protecting our quality of life. It has given millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to developers who don’t need them and has ignored our schools, our traffic, and our affordable housing crisis.
Misplaced priorities and missed opportunities aren’t the only problems. City hall is also mismanaging taxpayers’ money. A culture of secrecy and entitlement has grown up where there should be transparency and accountability. In deal after deal, the taxpayer is getting the short end of the stick. One of the primary reasons I am running for mayor is to change that.
Let me provide a few examples:
Fifth and Broadway, the site of our old convention center, was probably the most valuable piece of undeveloped property in the Southeastern United States. Yet in 2015, Metro sold the property to a developer for a mere $5 million due at closing plus $6.25 million over 25 years. The property’s true value was many times that. That is all money that could have gone to affordable housing. Nashville taxes then paid to build a $34 million parking garage on the site for the developer. That’s not all our taxpayers paid for. In the fall of 2018, the developer received a $25 million tax increment financing loan via a tax-exempt bond from the Metro Development and Housing Authority. Private developers, not the public, were the winners.
The previous administration proposed handing over 21 acres of Fort Negley Park to private developers in exchange for $1 million over 10 years, plus infrastructure improvements. Fort Negley Park is one of Nashville’s most historic sites. I quickly joined a broad coalition that formed to stop this giveaway. Vice-Mayor David Briley stayed silent. We succeeded in saving Fort Negley. Today, it is a UNESCO ‘Site of Memory.’ Yet instead of protecting other parks and public spaces, Mayor Briley has continued to attempt to sell them off. He steered ten acres of public land at the Fairgrounds to private development. He attempted to sell eleven wooded acres at Trinity Ridge. He proposed auctioning off Edgehill Community Memorial Park. Finally, he tried to swap Church Street Park downtown to a private developer offering a less valuable parcel. The pattern is clear. Bad deals and park giveaways will end when I become mayor.
A responsible city needs to evaluate opportunities systematically and openly. That didn’t happen when major league soccer came to Nashville. Instead of running a site selection that invited public input, city hall offered to build the stadium in Fairgrounds, with no consideration of its impact on such current uses as the State Fair. Then, to the surprise of the city council, City Hall awarded 10 additional acres to the developer. Building the stadium itself should have been enough of an incentive for a soccer team. We should not have included a bonus of ten acres at the Fairgrounds beyond the incentive of the stadium. At the same time, Mayor Briley was patching a budget hole with ill-advised one-time property sales, his administration steered ten acres at the Fairgrounds into private hands. City hall has sold land with its right hand and awarded it away with its left.
Economic incentives have their place. However, Nashville needs a mayor who will make sure the taxpayers come out ahead. As a former banker and a long-time businessman, I’ll do the math to make sure developments benefit taxpayers. Development should serve the needs of this city, not the other way around.
Nashville deserves better deals. My business experience and my time on the council have given me the skills and the knowledge to do better for our taxpayers. But I am also committed to helping the city do better. That means ending the culture of secrecy, evasiveness, and insider dealing that have taken root at city hall. Consider the following examples:
Earlier this year, Mayor Briley proposed a “parking modernization” plan that would result in private management of our street parking, an increase in fees and fines, and a doubling(at the very least) of the number of parking meters. The real purpose of the plan was to raise $30 million to plug a hole in this year’s budget. This is short-term thinking at its worst. However, even this was botched. The first time the parking deal was awarded, Metro miscalculated the bids and released an intent to award to a company that bid $74 million less than another company. The next iteration also had serious problems. One was the lack of details. The parking plan did not include a business plan, finalized rates, a map of where new meters would go, or a firm commitment to the number of additional metered spaces. I and many others objected to this proposal. In response, Mayor Briley announced that he was “hitting the pause button” on his parking plan. However, his budget continues to include the parking meter proposal and is expected to bring it up again after the election.
Parking meters aren’t the only issue over which his administration has thrown a veil of secrecy. The Mayor’s Office has used broad claims of executive privilege and deliberative process to avoid open records requests by members of the press, in order to keep negotiations, plans, and communications secret. Furthermore, Mayor Briley’s staff retaliated against a member of the press by removing him from their press communications list. This is an administration that seeks to avoid transparency. That is worrisome.
In 2017, Metro Council passed a three-year pay plan that included modest cost of living adjustments for Metro employees. Then, in his first State of Metro speech, Mayor Briley urged “belt-tightening” to explain taking away employee cost of living raises. Teachers actually saw their take-home pay decline due to rising insurance premiums. It was later revealed that Mayor Briley had given merit pay raises to his personal staff.
Consider the current discussions around purchasing the Morris Memorial Building. The building sits adjacent to a parking lot that was central to city hall’s proposed Church Street Park land swap. The proposed purchase was kept quiet from council members, and Mayor Briley has not yet said what the intended use of the building would be. The Mayor’s Office has an option agreement to purchase the building at 10 percent above appraised value; meanwhile Metro has sold our own properties for less than the appraised value.
Mayor Briley opposed the Community Oversight Board. His first budget removed promised cost of living raises for employees. Neither of the budgets he has proposed as mayor have increased funding for affordable housing by a single dollar. Yet his campaign is touting those three areas as accomplishments.
The Mayor’s Office has seemingly politicized the operations of the Metro Finance Department. In 2018, budget issues were kept quiet until the last minute, presumably to boost the chances of the transit referendum passing. At the June 4, 2018, Budget and Finance Committee meeting, Metro Finance stated that the fund balance was well below the 5% threshold — and that the pay plan had to be vacated due to this fiscal emergency. Subsequently, on August 30, 2018, Metro Finance formally declared that in seeking to reach and maintain a 5% fund balance, Metro could not afford a mere $50,000 for a referendum on the soccer stadium deal. The 2018 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report showed that the fund balance was, in fact, at 5.5% at the end of June 2018, well above the 5 percent threshold.
It’s time for a change.
As Mayor, I will put taxpayers first when it comes to negotiating development deals. I will do the math and negotiate good deals for this city. I will collaborate with Metro Council to craft real solutions to our challenges. I won’t hide what I am doing. Accountability begins with transparency. Here are some of the changes I will pursue in my first year in office:
I’ll put taxpayers first when it comes to negotiating development deals. That means ensuring that new developments do not merely add to the costs of growth. Getting a dividend from our growth means including affordable housing as part of every development Metro incentivizes. It means ensuring that locals benefit from jobs being brought here, not just new arrivals.
I will shift the focus of the Mayor’s Office away from political posturing and public relations to serving the needs of our residents, local businesses, and neighborhoods.
I will work with Metro Council to create an independent Metro Inspector General. This will be an independent office to work with the independent Office of Internal Audit. It will identify and prevent fraud and waste across the system.
I will work with Metro Council to develop an enforceable ethics code that would apply to all Metro departments and employees. It will include clear rules to regulate the use and supervision of outside consultants.
I will work with journalists, free press experts, and government agencies to review Metro’s current open records practices, to make sure that the public’s work is being done in a lawful, transparent, and public way.
I will conduct performance audits of metro departments and agencies to increase transparency of how our tax dollars are being spent and identify areas for improvement.
Public trust is easy to lose. But we can rebuild trust with a new start and a new attitude: Government serves the people, and the people deserve the truth.
I’d like to hear your thoughts and ideas. With your help and support, we can create a city that works for everyone.