When Nashville Mayor Karl Dean proposed the city's first property tax increase in seven years in his May 1 State of Metro address, his hardest work still lay ahead. In these economic times, a tax hike is a tough sell, and Dean didn't waste any time before making the pitch.
In his first term, Dean cut $59.2 million out of the city's operating budget and decreased the Metro workforce by 688 employees. Now he is arguing that by picking up this political grenade, he, not those who would cut the budget further, is the one making the "tough decision" so often called for in times of economic distress.
Since the address, he's put on the full-court press, sending out an email urging citizens to call their Metro Council members in support of the proposal and sitting down for interviews with various local media outlets.
"We're at a point now, if we cut further — and we are actually eliminating $3 million from operating budgets — to the level you would need to cut and not have a tax increase, you would be talking about cuts that would definitely go into muscle," he said in a meeting last week with staffers from the Scene and The City Paper. "We'd have to lay off 200 police officers, 200 firefighters, 200 teachers, close all the branch libraries, close all of the community centers. And you still wouldn't be there."
Dean is proposing a 53-cent increase for residents in Davidson County's Urban Services District — the more densely populated inner core, where more services are available — and, after a recent change, a 48-cent increase for those in the General Services District, the suburban areas where fewer Metro services are available. (The 53-cent hike to the city's $4.13 tax rate is an overall rise of 12.83 percent.) The proposals are just below the figures that would have triggered a public referendum on the issue.
But there have still been signs of pushback from the public. In a Twitter post last week, Councilwoman Emily Evans said she had received "a gazillion more emails" from people opposed to the tax increase and upset that Dean had asked them to contact council members. The Nashville Tea Party has called a meeting this Thursday, May 10, to rally members against the proposal.
And now Dean must win over a young council, which includes only five members who have ever voted on a property tax change. Three more are running as Democrats for seats in the deep-red state legislature, and may reasonably worry about the political consequences of supporting a tax increase.
Dean's premise is that a tax increase is, by far, the lesser of two evils — the greater of which simply can't be tolerated. But while he says it's really true this time, there are those who won't hear a bar of that ditty.
"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 — we're going to make it hurt," says Councilman Robert Duvall, who is running for a state seat as a Republican. "So everyone that's afraid they'll really do that shakes in their shoes and goes ahead and goes along with it rather than face the reality."
Councilman Charlie Tygard, who has survived property-tax debates under previous mayoral administrations, says he's not committed one way or the other but is "skeptical at this stage." He explains it's hard to know the council's temperature on the proposal right now, as it should be.
"I'm trying to tell folks that most reasonable, rational, thoughtful council members have not taken a position one way or another and will not until the council goes through its deliberations and talks to department heads," Tygard tells the Scene. "Certainly the mayor is meeting with individual council members one on one and is very committed from his standpoint.
"There's a lot of work to be done. We're just in the first quarter of a situation that, in many cases, takes overtime to decide."