By one account, the chair and vice chair of the Metro schools funding task force weren't speaking to each other this week. That's how strained things got between Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor David Williams and school board vice chair Kathy Nevill, who had a polite difference of opinion about how explicit the 29-member blue-ribbon panel should be in its final recommendations, which were released Tuesday.
Ordinarily, of course, no one would care that two committee members differ over a line item in a bureaucratic funding report. But with a tax increase on the horizonfrom a mayor who tends to let surrogates do his dirty work and committees do his heavy liftingthe report of the schools funding task force matters. Will there be a sales tax increase this year? A property tax increase?
Turns out the answer may be yes. To both.
At least that's the whisper among members of the task force, many of whom felt pressure to "keep options open" when the group seemed on the verge of denouncing a sales tax in their final report. They described an emerging consensus that the sales tax was not an "adequate and predictable" mechanism for funding schools, a majority viewpoint that was sidelined in the end by an imperative to give the mayor some "flexibility." Which is another way of saying it would be hard to recommend a sales tax increase if your big-shot task force had publicly denounced it.
That's why some are predicting a combination increase of property taxes and local option sales taxes when Hizzoner sends a budget over to the Metro Council in June. It's certainly not the most preferable scenario, because fair-minded folks like Bill Purcell don't like sales taxes. They're regressive, meaning poorer people pay a larger proportion of their income in taxes than the well-heeled do. But the sales tax option is politically attractive because it has to be approved by voters, allowing pols to wash their hands of the messy money extraction. Sort of the political equivalent of "We report, you decide."
To be sure, the budgeting and funding process is just getting under way. Purcell has reportedly told folks he has no specific plans and is waiting to hear from his departments about their funding needs. Of course, if you believe that the mayor of a decent-sized city hasn't thought much beyond what he wants for lunch, you are, in political parlance, smoking something. Or, at least, confusing the mayor's office with the state legislature.
Aides have even tentatively started laying the foundation for a sales tax. "It's not something that anybody sees as the ultimate answer but perhaps as something that could fit in an overall revenue stream," Purcell advisor Patrick Willard tells the Scene. Hmm, perhaps.
Some members of the funding task force complain that this "open options" agendawhich doesn't officially existwas shoved down their throats at the last minute, leading them to produce a watered-down version of their report. Instead of giving the mayor specific recommendations on school funding sources, which they thought was their charge, they're giving him a list of options he already has and telling him things about them that he already knows.
So the silver lining of the task forceother than a blanket endorsement of whatever Purcell decides to dois that two dozen opinion leaders in Nashville have a better understanding of how schools are funded. Federal funds and state funds are particularly unreliable. Local funds are lacking. The schools need money, which is scarce, and now people named Frist know that. When someone goes pushing a tax increase, at least he'll have a powerful posse.
Unfortunately, he won't have stellar test scores to cite. That's why school board members say this is a make-it-or-break-it year for Pedro Garcia and that the mayor seems to know it. Sure would have been nicemake that "politically advantageous"to have more progress to point to in the school system, but absent that we'll hear lots of rhetoric about building on the good foundation that's been laid so far.
In the end, Nashville may get a hefty property tax increase and the option to reduce it by converting some of it to a sales tax hikefor the children, of course. It's early yet, but as one school board member said, "We all kind of play the game. But at least we play it with our eyes open."
Homeless to be seen, not heard from
For the past several weeks, a committee has been meeting to set up the new Metro Homelessness Commission. The commission, as envisioned by this committee, would always include among its members someone who has personally experienced homelessness. But in a draft of legislation released Tuesday that includes input from the mayor's office, homeless people would no longer serve on the committee by law; rather, they'd be relegated to an "advisory committee" with even less power than the not-very-powerful commission itself.
At press time, the mayor, through an aide, told the Scene that he still intends to have a homeless or formerly homeless person on the commission at all times. If the current draft excludes them, it's not at his request, he says.
Which is a good thing, because Purcell initially failed to include homeless representation last year on his Task Force to End Chronic Homelessness. The first time was an embarrassing oversight. The second would make a pattern.
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