NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - Nashville Mayor John Cooper said in Tuesday's State of Metro speech in front of an empty Metro Council chamber that he wil ask for a property tax increase for 2021 after a tumultuous March with tornadoes and COVID-19 pandemic striking Nashville.
"Let me be direct, The budget ordinance that will be filed with the Council in April will sharply increase the property tax rate from its current historically low level," Cooper said. "The final amount will be determined with the best information available, but it will be substantial. This is something we have to do. This is no time for avoiding unpleasant realities or gambling with the city's future. We must ensure that we have the resources to get us all the way through to the post-virus Nashville."
Cooper delivered the 57th State of Metro address before an empty Council chamber to practice social distancing. Public access to the address was limited to program participants and was streamed on the Metro Nashville Network. He remarked on the empty chamber and unusual arrangement to live-stream the event to illustrate the public health emergency the city is facing in the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed three lives in Davidson County with 541 confirmed cases as of Tuesday.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects in Nashville follow a March 3rd tornado that destroyed or damaged 2,242 structures and claimed two lives in Davidson County. Metro Government also entered the final quarter of the 2019-20 fiscal year with thinned cash balances and mounting debt payments.
“This is an unprecedented time for our city,” said Cooper. “Today is the most unusual State of Metro speech in our history. Our community is connected even when we have to stay apart. This chamber may be empty, but our hearts are full; our resolve is strong. This may well be the greatest set of challenges Nashville has ever faced. These are hard times. But we will get through them. And we will be a greater city. We will find solutions and move forward together.”
Cooper said unexpected disasters such as the tornado and COVID-19 are why cities have rainy day funds.
"Unfortunately, Metro Government doesn't have a rainy day fund, and instead, actually thinned its cash balances. Our lack of a rainy day fund has left us vulnerable in what has become a stormy season," Cooper said.
Within the first six months of entering office, the Cooper administration made considerable progress in stabilizing Metro’s finances. In August, the State Comptroller formally instructed Metro to balance its budget, build up cash reserves, and institute a cash management policy.
The Mayor’s Office found more than $30 million in new revenue, including a $12.6 million annual payment in lieu of taxes from the Music City Center, and an additional $3.6 million payment from the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation.
Cooper said Metro has an excellent insurance policy and will receive public assistance reimbursements from FEMA. But the city is anticipating public recovery and rebuilding costs from the March 3 tornado.
Locally, costs of the coronavirus outbreak are estimated to be far more serious. Unemployment claims in Tennessee increased by 1,300 percent last week, and a sharp and sudden recession has implications for Metro revenues. With tourism on hold and bars and restaurants temporarily closed, sales and hotel tax collections have fallen sharply.
Cooper said the Metro Finance Department estimates that revenues from sales taxes and other activity taxes will be $200 to $300 million lower than the city had expected before the COVID-19 pandemic for the fourth quarter of the current fiscal year alone. The impact of the coronavirus disease on the next fiscal year is unknown.
In response, Metro has taken immediate steps to shore up its cash flow, announcing an immediate hiring freeze except for public safety and other critical positions, no promotions or pay raises, and a hold on all travel by Metro personnel.
All departments have been directed to identify immediate cost reduction opportunities, and Metro is delaying all non-essential capital spending. While these actions will reduce city spending by millions of dollars, the city will be required to find hundreds of millions of dollars in other savings and in new revenues.
Cooper said the city has no option but to raise property taxes this year.
"Metro finances are in a place where there is no option," he said. "We can't print money or borrow to cover our operating expenses. We must raise property taxes, as difficult as that is right now."
Cooper indicated his office would work with the Finance Department to submit a formal budget to the Metro Council by April 28.
“This is not a budget message, as much as it is a statement of principles,” Cooper said. “Through careful financial stewardship, we will meet today’s challenges and build a greater city on the other side. We will not lose our vision. This is a season of challenges. But the time will come when we can invest again. And when that season arrives, we will move. We will move forward with plans to make our teachers the best paid teachers in the state of Tennessee. We will have a new transportation plan with solutions for every neighborhood. We will implement a 10-year affordable housing plan. We will have fully staffed fire and police departments, and we will have body cameras.”
“I’m optimistic enough to see that we will get back to having traffic problems in a few months. Visitors will come back to downtown. Our growth will continue. Our ability to respond to two simultaneous emergencies will confirm our place where people want to put their future. We’ve got to meet this challenge. Getting this right can save thousands of lives. We’ve got to and we will. Nashville’s best days are ahead of us. Nashville will take care of each other and, together, we will build a city that works for everyone.”
Cooper opened the speech addressing the March 3 tornado that started in west Nashville near John Tune Airport and traveled through north Nashville, Germantown, Donelson and Hermitage before continuing into Wilson County.
Cooper reflected on his visit to Nashville Farmers’ Market in the early morning hours of March 3, which had temporarily served as an emergency gathering point, and to devastated areas in North Nashville, where he witnessed a groundswell of community support for displaced neighbors whose homes were destroyed.
“As the morning dawned, people came together,” said Cooper. “Churches played a key role in bringing people together. One church, Lee Chapel AME, didn’t have electric power, but it had its pastor, Representative Harold Love, who was there leading the response with many, man, many others including Deputy Mayor Brenda Haywood. Throughout the day and in the days that followed, hundreds of volunteers converged on Lee Chapel, bringing food, supplies, and offers of help and hope.
“That week, more than 26,000 individuals signed up to volunteer with Hands On Nashville. That’s 4,000 more people than volunteered in the eight months following the 2010 flood. Never has Nashville stood stronger.”
Since March 3, Metro departments and partner agencies have cleared 116 blocked roads and 60 alleyways, repaired infrastructure at 335 intersections and 72 downed traffic signals, removed 5,128 truckloads of debris totaling over 239,000 cubic yards, and restored power to nearly 50,000 homes.
The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has received over $9.9 million in contributions from 21,414 donors and has made grants to 42 nonprofits to help with tornado recovery efforts. Grantee organizations include Hands on Nashville, Lee Chapel AME Church, Gideon’s Army, Martha O’Bryan Center, Donelson Fellowship, Rooftop Nashville, and NeedLink Nashville.
Residents affected by the storm who need shelter or food assistance can dial 2-1-1. The Metro Action Commission provides help with rent, mortgage, and utility payments. Dial 3-1-1 or make an online request at hubNashville to find other Metro resources. FEMA is still accepting applications for federal individual assistance at disasterassistance.gov.
“Our neighborhoods now face yet another challenge – the coronavirus,” said Cooper. “This is the great challenge of the current moment – the reason this chamber is empty today. We have acted decisively to meet this challenge.”
On March 15, the Metro Board of Health issued an executive order closing entertainment venues. Mayor Cooper formed the Metro Coronavirus Task Force and asked Dr. Alex Jahangir, Chair of the Metro Board of Health and a renowned trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, to serve as Nashville’s coronavirus response coordinator.
On March 22, the public health department issued the “Safer at Home” order, directing people not employed in essential occupations to stay at home and not gather in groups for 14 days. The purpose of this order is to slow the pace of the pandemic and to prevent area hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
Cooper announced the city will be extending the "Safer at Home" order through April 24 to further contain and combat the spread of the coronavirus in Davidson County.
“Stay home,” said Cooper. “Practice social distancing – stay 6 feet away from other people, avoid gathering in groups. As Dr. Hildreth, the President of Meharry and a budding TV star, likes to say, ‘Don’t be a vector.’ Although these are still early days, I am encouraged by Nashville’s response to the Safer at Home order. People are observing social distancing and it is making a difference. What we are doing now will save lives.”