After a year of pandemic closures and economic recession, Mayor John Cooper is proposing a budget with significant investments in education, transportation and affordable housing this year.
In his second State of Metro address, held at Music City Center on Thursday morning, Cooper outlined a slate of spending priorities he said was designed to put people first and bring opportunity to all.
“A city on the rise must rise to the occasion,” Cooper said. “We must be a city that works — and works for everyone and every neighborhood. That requires the investments that this budget will make in our people and neighborhoods.”
Recalling a year marked with challenges, from tornadoes to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Christmas Day bombing and recent flooding, Cooper thanked Nashville’s COVID-19 task force and first responders, specifically recognizing the six Nashville police officers who saved lives on Christmas morning by evacuating homes near Second Avenue.
Turning the page from last year’s “crisis” budget, Cooper proposed an “investment” budget to build a post-pandemic economic rebound.
“This budget is enabled by Pfizer and Moderna,” Cooper told Main Street Nashville after the address. “Had we not had the vaccine, you could not have done this budget, you would have to still have an essentially closed economy with repercussions. … The fact that we can say that May 14, we are opening back up is the ability to say we’ve got a lot of confidence in our revenue forecast for the next year.”
School funding and
teacher pay raises
Among the largest investments, Cooper announced plans to fully fund the school board’s budget request, including $81 million in additional spending for Metro Nashville Public Schools and $50 million in teacher salary raises. That’s projected to result in a salary jump of about $6,924 per teacher. He’s also proposing $2.5 million for social-emotional learning.
MNPS Superintendent Dr. Adrienne Battle called the proposal a “tremendous step forward.”
“Simply put, this means that our MNPS teachers will be compensated as best in state,” Battle told Main Street Nashville. “It means that we’re recognizing and placing value in their experience and all that they offer to our youth and to our community as they’re developing and really preparing our young people for life.”
Federal funds to expand
On affordable housing, Cooper laid out some of his priorities for the $267 million in federal stimulus Nashville is set to receive from the American Rescue Plan stimulus package.
“These federal funds present a historic opportunity to help our neighbors in need. We are committed to using them equitably to benefit as many people as possible,” Cooper said.
Following forthcoming recommendations of his affordable housing task force, Cooper is proposing $37.5 million in funding for housing initiatives. He’s proposing to direct $10 million from the American Rescue Plan to the Barnes Fund and increase Metro’s contribution by $2.5 million. He’s also proposing $10 million in federal funding to create a Catalyst Housing Fund to preserve affordable housing units.
Cooper also announced Thursday a request for proposals plan for 3 acres of Metro-owned land on 24th Avenue North, and he touted support for a proposal by council member Zulfat Suara to direct property tax revenue from Oracle’s future River North campus to the Barnes Fund.
Tremendous growth in Nashville has taken a toll on the city’s transportation infrastructure.
“Our future requires investment in infrastructure. We must be smart investors,” Cooper said. “We must make these smart, neighborhood-focused investments to keep Nashville on the move for generations.”
As a complement to Metro’s transportation plan approved in December, Cooper is proposing to restore funding for WeGo with $25 million. He’s also proposing to fund 42 new positions for Metro’s future Department of Transportation.
“It’s bringing forward all the resources and the organizational components that are needed to make the Metro Nashville Transportation Plan that was adopted in December implemented, and deliver the improvements that people are expecting,” Cooper’s transportation and infrastructure adviser Faye DiMassimo told Main Street Nashville.
For community safety initiatives, Cooper proposed $9.3 million for 40 new firefighters and 20 new EMTs, as well as funding for 40 new police officers for the Southeast Precinct.
He’s also proposing a 49% increase in operations funding for the Office of Emergency Management.
“That’s what happens after a year of emergencies,” Cooper said.
and tax rates
One of the largest announcements in Cooper’s address was not a spending announcement, but support of a proposal that would save Nashville more than $1 billion in post-employment benefits for former Metro employees — OPEB benefits.
Next week, the Employee Benefits Board is set to vote on an item that would require Metro retirees to use a Medicare Advantage health care plan as their only benefit option. Cooper shared his support for the plan, saying it would cut Metro’s OPEB liabilities by $1.1 billion.
“It actually ends up saving us a ton of money, they get better care, and the federal government pays for it,” Cooper told Main Street Nashville. “It’s a win-win-win proposal. ... We will also have our operating cost benefit from this move as well, and that can be redeployed in employee pay in the future years. But the inertia of just saying we’re going to keep funding whatever our old system was isn’t working out for us.”
Nashville’s OPEB liabilities have surpassed $4 billion — astronomically high compared with peer cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and Indianapolis, both with OPEB liabilities that were less than $350 million in 2018.
Property tax rate
With property assessments reflecting significant growth in property values in the last four years, Cooper announced that Nashville’s certified property tax rate — after state-required equalization adjustments — will be $3.288 per $100 of assessed property. That brings the rate back to just a bit more than the 2019 rate of $3.155, before the 34% increase last year. That doesn’t mean property tax bills will go down.
Cooper will outline details of the budget during a presentation to the Metro Finance Department this morning.
“One year ago, our future was uncertain. But today, there is no city in America better positioned for the years ahead than Nashville,” Cooper said Thursday. “We’ve weathered the storm. We’ve repaired our finances. And we have a new opportunity to rise together as a city that works for everyone.”