While state lawmakers were testing the endurance of their antiperspirants this week, wringing their hands over how to pass a tax fix without jeopardizing their political careers, a collected, mob-free Metro Council rubber-stamped a tax increase mired in less dissonance than any in Metro’s history.
The incongruity of the Council and state Legislature situations was somewhat astonishing. The 88-cent Metro property tax increase, attached to a $1.2 billion budget, came without the staged civil disobedience of horn-honking opponents or placard bearers comparing Mayor Bill Purcell to Hitler. (Gov. Don Sundquist hasn’t been so lucky in recent years over his tax increase proposals.) And to boot, all the Metro Council members who wanted to make it home for dinner Tuesday night had time to spare after approving the eighth tax increase of Metro’s 38-year history.
“It is a weird situation,” says Democratic state Rep. Rob Briley, who notes, however, that state government is simply a different animal. “The state government’s a little more nebulous,” he says. “The two systems are much different. Metro has a mayor who is relatively more powerful to his legislative body than our governor is.”
Technically, that argument can be disputed, given that the governor appoints a cabinet, and the Nashville mayor only has complete discretion to appoint his finance director. But certainly in the current climate, in which GOP Gov. Don Sundquist has thrown up his hands and pretty well extricated himself from the state budget process, Briley’s assertion holds.
Throw in the partisan bickering at the Hill and the myriad state taxesas opposed to Metro’s nonpartisan legislative body and essentially one primary local revenue source in the property taxand the two situations are night and day.
Briley’s older brother, David, an at-large Metro Council member, makes another salient point, namely that Mayor Bill Purcell and city finance director David Manning are strong personalities Council members have been hard-pressed to challenge. “Nobody really is willing to confront the mayor and Manning about exactly what it is they’re doing,” Briley says. “That’s because of term limits,” he adds, referring to Metro’s two-term ceiling for Council members that has created a largely unseasoned local legislative body.
But the elder Briley concedes that “most everything that is in the increase there’s a pretty broad consensus for.”
Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine says that the mayor and his staff deserve credit for lobbying the package. “Mayor Purcell and his staff worked very hard to solidify a large number of commitments to the 88 cents,” Steine says. Somewhat ironically, one of the reasons for so little carping about the significant tax increase at the local level has been “quite frankly, the amount of the attention that is focused on the Legislature,” he adds.
Beyond that, Steine says, the 1999 election of Purcell and the current 40-member Council included “broad-based community support for improving public schools,” the recipient of a large share of Purcell’s tax increase. It doesn’t hurt either, Steine says, that there has been scant media scrutiny of the 88-cent proposal, perhaps because the proceeds primarily will fund education and government employee pay raises, causes that are difficult to oppose. The Tennessean, Nashville Scene, and The City Paper, for example, all editorialized for Metro Council passage of Purcell’s budget.
Some have theorized as well that the concrete icons of former Mayor Phil Bredesen’s tenurewhich was also dotted with increased school curriculum spending and added city green space, feathers in his cap that are less often rememberedhave paved the way for the less visible, more nuts-and-bolts improvements of the Purcell administration.
“From now for a long time to come, that stadium is going to be great for schools,” one Metro observer says.
In any case, the Metro Council, motivated perhaps by the wish that it not be perceived as a collective Purcell lapdog, did make minor revisions to the city budget. The tax increase remained the same, but Council members moved some of the money around a bit, reducing, for example, Purcell’s suggested allocations to Nashville Public Television and to the Metro Arts Commission.
And perhaps as the final word in a several-week-long struggle between the Council and finance director David Manning, who refused to break down penny by penny where the tax increase was going, Council members cut the mayor’s proposed increase for Manning’s department.
“The few things we are changing I’m sure [Purcell] will be upset about, but we’re not doing anything that’s irresponsible,” one Council member says.
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