For this week's dead-tree Scene , I waded into Metro politics for some brief reportage on Mayor Karl Dean's proposal of the city's first property tax increase in seven years. Essentially, this amounts to an attempt to catch up to the City Paper's Joey Garrison, who's covered the matter extensively (and, as always, provided the Metro play-by-play on Twitter, may its name be praised).
In the course of trying to take the Metro Council's temperature on the mayor's proposal — which Garrison has also done a bit of — I talked with Antioch-area councilman Robert Duvall and at-large councilman Charlie Tygard, both of whom are conservatives. Duvall started speaking out against a tax increase before it was even proposed, while Tygard, a veteran member of the council who has lived through property-tax debates under several mayoral administrations, said he was "skeptical" but "not committed one way or another."
While chatting on the phone, though, neither hesitated to throw a few ideas at the wall that they say could shrink the tax increase, if not eliminate it altogether.
Duvall said he doesn't buy the mayor's premise that a tax increase is necessary in order to avoid laying off police, firefighters and teachers. He said "every property tax increase you get is either for the children or 'We're going to cut police,' or 'We're going to close your parks.' "
"I don't believe it's the case," he said. "The first thing government is supposed to do is provide for the safety of the community so our policemen, our firemen, our EMTs, I think, are above reproach."
Dean has been arguing that the necessary cuts would be deep enough to "go into muscle." Duvall seems inclined to call his bluff, as it were, and get out the knife.
“He asked for a $100 million increase," he said. "What I say is, we stop spending. We cut whatever we have to cut until we get to the $100 million number and find out how real it is. That’s exactly what we’ll be looking for is where can we cut. $47 million of it can be the schools' proposed increase. That’s a big chunk of it. Hold it where it was.”
Denying an increase in funding to Metro schools would most likely be classified by the Dean camp as taking the city backward instead of moving it forward, which is the overarching argument for the tax increase.
For his part, Tygard seemed genuinely undecided, and said it's important for council members to wait before making up their minds, but he also had his own list of ideas. He said he knows he's speaking "heresy," but that the city is in "crisis mode." He threw out a few thoughts, with the tone of a father hesitantly suggesting that the kids might have to share a room in the downsized family home.
“The biggest subsidy in Metro is to General Hospital," he said. "Are we ready to have the discussion — can Metro continue to be in the hospital business at a facility that has 50 percent occupancy and is in the range of $43 million of subsidy? Could we make a payment to other hospitals — Vanderbilt, Baptist, St. Thomas, Centennial — for care and not operate our own bricks-and-mortar with the overhead and the salaries and the high-tech equipment, and could we be getting better bang for our dollars at a lesser price?”
“I know General Hospital is a sacred cow but, you know, we’re in crisis mode now and that’s just one example.”
But there's more.
"Certainly any department or facility that is running at a deficit — whether it be the farmers market, whether it be the fairgrounds, whether it be Municipal Auditorium, the Bridgestone Arena — any facility that is operating at a deficit and can not make it on its own, is it time to look at privatizing or getting out of that business? I know I’m saying things that are very, very controversial, but these are the types of discussions that, when you’re in crisis mode, it’s the time to discuss,” he said.
Tygard, a would-be butcher on a sacred-cattle ranch by this point in the conversation, also brought up education, specifically downtown's Hume-Fogg High School. In a historic building just up Broadway from the honky-tonk strip, Hume-Fogg has been fielding athletic teams without the accompanying facilities. In the proposed budget, $8 million is set aside to purchase an adjacent parking lot — which, Tygard notes, is producing tax revenue, albeit a relatively small amount — and build a gymnasium for the school.
The councilman has a different idea. Why not have Hume-Fogg swap campuses with the Nashville School of the Arts, he said, a school just miles away that does not field athletic teams but is located on a campus with athletic facilities? That way, he said, Hume-Fogg students would have facilities for their athletic teams and Nashville School of the Arts students would be able to walk to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center or to the Schermerhorn or the Frist Center.
"Now I understand that’s an unpopular thing to say to people who are at Hume-Fogg or graduates because that’s their school," he said. "But can we afford to build an $8 million gym just for that school, when there may be a cheaper solution that doesn’t cost a dime?"
"This is heresy," he conceded. "Now, there may be 50 reasons why it's a bad idea. But just on the surface, from an athletic facility standpoint, why doesn't it make sense? Somebody is going to have to tell me why it doesn't make sense."
After all that, Tygard reaffirmed his present status as undecided.
"I’m not committed one way or another," he said. "I don’t want to lay policeman off, I don’t want to close fire halls, I don’t want to shut the libraries down more days. But maybe there are some nonessential things that would ... instead of 53 cents it might be 23 cents would get us by.”
Since I spoke to Duvall and Tygard, the all-powerful Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has come out in favor of the tax increase, and as I write, a release from a group calling themselves Moving Nashville Forward is hitting inboxes, announcing their support. The latter is led, according to the release, by former Metro councilman Erik Cole, among others.
Garrison also reports this morning that the conservative-backed group Americans for Prosperity says Nashville taxpayers are "under attack" from the mayor's proposed tax increase.
The fun begins in earnest this week, as the council takes up the mayor's budget for the first time.