Nashville lawyer Jim Roberts has made feisty lawsuits against the Metro government a central part of his practice.
So when a substantial property tax increase passed, he says some downtown business owners began seeking an attorney, and his name quickly surfaced.
“And they said, ‘What are we going to do? This is going to kill us,’ ” Roberts recalls. “And that lawyer said, ‘Well, I have a crazy friend,’ and that crazy friend was me.”
And so it is Roberts leading what he calls the “Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act.” It’s a move to create a ballot measure that would sharply limit the Metro Council’s power and cancel the 34% tax increase that passed in June.
Residents, along with the Davidson County Election Commission, will learn in the coming weeks if the special election will happen in December. With so much at stake — and major legal questions looming over the wording of the referendum — the city asked a court to prevent the referendum from taking place. But Roberts, citing Metro’s own rules about petitions, has told the same judge that the rules are on his side.
“You’ve got to go after the system if you want to effect change,” Roberts says. “And you have to do it sanely and rationally and you have to use the system.”
Roberts takes up battles
Over the past few years, Roberts has taken on cases in opposition to the new professional soccer stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds and the proposed redevelopment of Fort Negley.
A decade ago, he helped lead the push for the English-only referendum, which unsuccessfully tried to prevent government services from being translated to other languages.
But while he’s been busy acting as a watchdog, he has also developed a record of unpredictability, including being disciplined for not following the rules that guide his profession.
Over the past 11 years, the Board of Professional Responsibility has publicly censured Roberts three times and once suspended his license for six months.
He says this record doesn’t paint a full picture — he takes issue with how the board functions — but he says clients stick with him because they see him as an underdog willing to take on a fight with anybody.
And the referendum is something of a culmination.
“I spent about 10 years just making up a list of all the things I would do if our king for the day, things that I would implement,” Roberts says. “And there was a lot of different ideas.”
So he boiled all of his ideas down to five bullet points, and gathered enough petitioners to call for a special election.
If his proposed measure passes, it would limit city council’s ability to spend money without frequently going to voters for additional public approvals.
Metro officials oppose referendum
But city officials, including Councilmember Bob Mendes, say more special elections would make the local government less efficient. And it would cost taxpayers more time at the polls and more money to hold future special elections.
“We’d have to know that it does fundamentally change the way that government will work,” Mendes says. “We will move to a California style governance by referendum. We’d have referendums over Rose Park lease to MNPS, Ford Ice Center, 12 referendums over tax rates over the last several years.”
He’s among those trying to make the case that maintaining Metro services will require every dollar from the tax increase that the council approved.
Boots on the ground
But it’s simpler to push voters to say no to taxes. That’s the message conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity took to the streets.
The organization is backed by the Koch brothers and supports conservative causes throughout the nation.
They helped spread a petition that got more than 20,000 signatures. They used door knocks, setting up at polling sites and sending mailers.
“It didn’t really matter what people’s political persuasion was,” AFP’s State Director Tori Venable says. “They all felt that they could not afford a 34% property tax hike at this time.”
She’s shocked that the city was, as she says, “tone deaf” in passing an increase during the pandemic.
Some residents voiced opposition during Metro Council debates, but leaders also heard from taxpayers who said they were fine with an increase as long as they would see impacts in their neighborhoods.
“And there’s no reason that we shouldn’t have cash reserves,” Venable says. “There’s no reason that Metro should be in the position it’s in other than its reckless spending.”
Campaign messages come full circle
Mayor John Cooper has come out strongly against the referendum. But for years, he has expressed concerns similar to Venable’s.
In his 46-page policy book from his campaign last year, Cooper questioned how Metro operates and whether its spending has been efficient. A year later, the referendum represents a combative version of his message, and one that’s forcing him to defend Metro’s financial decisions.
“I feel deep sympathy with the point of view. But you have to get it done in a manageable way,” Cooper tells WPLN News. “That’s not blowing up your community.”
While he wants the city to be better at managing money, he says the tax increase was necessary — and that Metro had been too willing to spend down its savings and budget based on money that wasn’t guaranteed. In recent months, Tennessee’s comptroller has twice warned the city that a takeover was possible if the fiscal approach didn’t change.
In his first year, Cooper fixed some of that problem. He got more tourism dollars out of the convention center and saved taxpayers some money by revising the soccer stadium plan.
“I could fix that,” Cooper explains. “And that was a $70-million problem. I could go get the money — redirect it from tourism in large parts, and in cuts. And that’s what I had hoped to do in the environment of my [campaign]. COVID changed that.”
Undoing the tax increase now, the mayor says, would be felt citywide.
Among the changes: Trash pick-up would be cut to twice a month, Metro Nashville Public School class sizes would increase and the police force would be reduced by a third.
To some petition supporters, those warnings have been labeled simply as scare tactics. And they’re sticking with their effort to repeal the tax increase and restrict the Metro Council.
A court ruling on whether the referendum will occur is expected before Election Day.