When John Cooper was sworn in as mayor a little more than a year ago, he and voters thought it was the end of an unusual period in Nashville history. He was the third mayor in less than two years, and he was promising to set the city straight.
But neither he nor Nashville residents could have predicted the chaos that would define his first year in office. A tornado destroyed large swaths of the city in early March. Just a few days later, Nashville would record its first known case of COVID-19, the disease that continues months later to color nearly every decision made by city government and the daily lives of Nashville residents. Over the summer, social justice protests erupted here, as they did across the country, with people demanding more police accountability. The Metro Courthouse where Cooper has his office was set on fire.
Now Cooper is facing calls for his head from conservatives — many of whom supported his 2019 campaign — in part because of a property tax increase he said was necessary to keep the city functioning at full force. A proposed Metro Charter revision could be on the ballot in December, with its goal of limiting the city’s power to levy taxes potentially disastrous for Nashville government, according to the mayor.
Still, asked how he has lived up to campaign promises of “a Nashville for everyone” and better fiscal management, Cooper says “super good.”
“We came up with a balanced budget and solved those financial problems entirely by repurposing tourism revenues and cuts, which were painful,” Cooper tells the Scene. “We have a transportation plan. We’re taking politics out of procurement. We are getting better deals. Every place we’re able to manage for a better outcome, we have been managing for a better outcome.”
That transportation plan is scaled back from an earlier effort under former Mayors Megan Barry and David Briley that Cooper opposed. The new plan details $1.6 billion in spending on buses and other transportation projects, but some have questioned its practicality, as it includes no dedicated funding streams.
Can the city fund $1.6 billion in transportation projects simply by asking the federal and state government for grants?
“This is an interesting chicken-and-egg problem,” Cooper says. “As it turns out, you have to have a plan before you can get grant funding, either from the federal or state government. If you don’t have a plan, you don’t know how much money you can get. … In the question of chicken or egg, the answer is it’s an egg. You have to have a plan.”
And with the pall of the tax referendum looming over the city’s finances, Cooper says it would be difficult to promise much more.
Cooper and his finance department are already making cuts — including a hiring freeze — in anticipation that the charter revision could be placed on the ballot. But the mayor acknowledges that it may not be possible to cut your way out of the hole that the vote could leave the city in.
“The answer is no if you have any resemblance of appropriate city services for a city,” he says. “You can’t do it with the same number of trash pickups, the same number of police officers, the same number of firemen, all these basic city services. Until this is resolved, there’s a huge question mark on everything.”
Neither Cooper nor his lawyers nor a number of outside lawyers think the proposed charter amendment is a legal proposition — in part because state law gives local governments sole control over local taxes, and in part because the proposal is backdated to the start of the year. The Davidson County Election Commission is asking a local court whether they have to put it on the ballot, but a court might wait until after a vote to decide on its legality.
“From my standpoint, a lot of the damage is already done,” Cooper says.
The city is also in court fighting the state government, and specifically Gov. Bill Lee, over a school voucher bill the Republican spearheaded that only applies to Nashville and Memphis schools. After the two jurisdictions sued the state, two courts have found the law unconstitutional, and it’s one of a few points of contention between Cooper and his counterpart down the street at the Capitol.
Another dispute has arisen between the two regarding COVID-19, and Cooper’s handling of it. Lee has urged cities around the state — including Nashville, Tennessee’s economic driver — to “open up.” He also balked when Cooper asked for more of the state’s federal coronavirus relief money.
“In terms of blue-city mayors and red-state governors, we are at the upper end of good relationships,” Cooper says. “This 100 percent does not mean we agree on all kinds of things. We clearly have a different public health view about how to solve COVID. I’m told that the governor’s $2.3 billion discretionary CARES money, that there’s quite an outstanding balance there. If that’s the case, it is my due duty to go advocate for Nashville, to say we have a ton of needs here. We are not only allowed to do that, it is our responsibility to do that. Any funding entity such as the state or a foundation, is always not necessarily gonna be super happy about that.
“In that important and difficult work, we know we’ve not served everybody,” the mayor continues. “We know there’s small music venues that are going to close unless they can make rent in November. It is my job to go ask for that. We shouldn’t be defensive about it, nor should the state. It’s very easy for the state to have a slightly defensive response of, ‘Oh you’ve got all this money, I don’t know how you’re spending it.’ Part of our original correspondence was, ‘Look how well we’ve spent it.’ ”
One thing Cooper and Lee seem to share: opposition to the concept of defunding the police. During the budget debate this summer, activists and some Metro Council members urged the city to reallocate $100 million in Metro Nashville Police Department funding to other priorities, but the effort failed. So too did a compromise that would have reallocated $3 million in police funding to social and emotional learning initiatives. Instead, the council followed Cooper’s lead and gave police a modest budget increase, despite limited increases across the board, because police leaders said they needed it to pay an already-trained class of new recruits.
“When you open that up, you may want additional services, but you don’t want to underfund current services to do that,” Cooper says of efforts to reallocate police spending. He points to a New York Times story about the collapse of a promise to dismantle the Minneapolis police department.
After a year of destruction, illness and economic disaster, Cooper is largely pleased with the job he’s done and the response he’s gotten.
“I was hired to fix problems,” he says. “It’s not that I’m perfect. Mostly, people are deeply sympathetic.”