This story is updated regularly and was last updated Oct. 8, 2020.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper entered office with a strong mandate from the city’s voters. Nearly 70% backed him and the ideas he championed, which were numerous and detailed: He proudly handed out 46-page policy platform booklets while campaigning.
“I’ll do the math and tell you the truth,” Cooper wrote in the book.
As much as any candidate, Cooper put his promises in writing, creating both a road map for the administration and a record that residents will have a chance to monitor. It provides, in one sense, more opportunity for accountability than with other recent leaders.
The plan commits Cooper’s Metro government to bigger spending on schools, transit, police, parks, infrastructure and more. But at the same time, Cooper is vowing a fiscal responsibility with taxpayer dollars that he says the city has been lacking.
And his specific commitments add up — dozens, big and small, technical and aspirational.
The approach has intrigued even longtime local leaders, like Vice Mayor Jim Shulman.
“It was kind of a new twist,” Shulman said. “He goes in with things in writing … so people have a copy of the book.”
And for those who haven’t seen the ideas, WPLN is making the platform handy here as a PDF.
In his first year in office, Nashville experienced a budget crisis, tornadoes, protests against systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those hurdles were compounded with pressure from state officials, a brief recall effort against the mayor and a major campaign that’s attempting to limit the power of the Metro Council and other officials.
WPLN has identified nine areas the new mayor has focused on in promises made in his policy book, campaign mailers, interviews and debate appearances. We will follow how and whether they become reality during his time in office. Our goal is to review this list each month and update its status.
A promise to increase education spending played as prominently as any in Cooper’s campaign. It appeared in his policy book, in interviews and during at least two debates.
1) “I plan to direct over half of new revenue into our school system.”
If the commitment sounds technical, the bottom line is that it is a large funding commitment to the district. Officials, for example, anticipate about $100 million in new property tax revenue in the coming year — so this promise would send half of that, or $50 million, toward Metro Schools.
That caliber of increase would be much larger than the district received either of the past two years.
Status: The ambitious funding target has not been reached. In June, City Council approved a budget that moved $20.2 million to the school district. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
2) The outgoing administration expressed frustration at how small Metro’s state funding increase was in the past year. Cooper says he’ll lobby for better treatment. “I will join the voices of those advocating at the state level for revisions to the BEP formula to better account for the needs of urban districts and secure more funding for our schools.” (Policy Platform page 37)
Status: Cooper’s office says it directed Metro Legal to support MNPS and Shelby County Schools in their effort to challenge the State of Tennessee’s BEP funding formula in August 2020. The next court date is set for October 2021. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
3) In a mailer, the mayor vowed to give “meaningful” pay raises to teachers. He did not specify an amount.
Status: Some of that money councilmembers allocated for the district will raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour, which impacts about 1,500 employees. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
One of Cooper’s most memorable mailers was a cartoon illustration of a neighborhood street. And it had annotations showing all of the things along that street that would be improved under his leadership.
4) An expanded sidewalk network, stormwater improvements, intersection upgrades, and a better bus system are among Cooper’s spending promises — “all the things that we need to get on and go ahead and fund,” he said during a televised debate on NewsChannel 5.
Status: The draft of Cooper’s transit plan wants to spend $200 million on sidewalks, which will address 80% of priority sidewalk needs across Davidson County. It currently doesn’t address stormwater improvements or intersection upgrades. While this is a broad promise, Cooper has already moved to spend more than $13 million on bridge and culvert repairs, as well as shifting how other dollars are put toward bikeways. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
5) Cooper supports making 25 mph the default speed limit for neighborhood streets. (Policy Platform page 27)
Status: The mayor formally announced his support in October 2019, and the Metro Council endorsed the idea as well. Implementation was left to the Traffic and Parking Commission. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
6) The new mayor isn’t satisfied with the pace that Nashville is adding sidewalks. “We should bring some of the sidewalk project work in-house at Metro Public Works because we know sidewalks are going to be a stable long-term capital spending need.” (Policy Platform page 26)
Status: In January, the mayor’s office said it is evaluating the costs of sidewalk construction. Updated Jan. 9, 2020.
7) Cooper, in a WPLN interview, shared a vision for the future of Jefferson Street.
“It needs to be this incredible path into the 21st century, and that’s going to require a redevelopment plan. That’s going to require infrastructure and that’s requiring all of these separate (university) campuses connecting to this plan that in the future people are going to go, ‘Wow, that is the greatest street in the South.’ ”
Status: The mayor is proposing a $175 million investment in a bicycle/pedestrian accessible, green-space interstate cap at I-40/I-65. The project, which is detailed in his transportation plan, says it will help reconnect the west and east sides of North Nashville at Jefferson Street, which were divided by the construction of the interstate system. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
The new mayor was one of the most vocal opponents of the 2018 mass transit referendum, but he says it was a problem with the plan, not the premise of improving transit. Compared to other mayoral candidates, he vowed to move faster than most on increasing funding.
8) “I want to lessen the time you spend in traffic through smart solutions, connect neighborhoods through bus system improvements, and invest in infrastructure like sidewalks to improve pedestrian safety.” (Policy Platform page 6)
Status: Cooper is crafting his transit plan to focus on improving the current bus system and investing in neighborhoods’ infrastructure. He plans to present his plan to council by the beginning of 2021. For now he is still gathering residents’ input. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
9) “I will present a fiscally responsible [transit] plan within my first year in office.” (Policy Platform page 6)
Status: So far Cooper’s administration says his transit proposal will not need taxpayers to pick up the tab. Instead he’s looking to federal and state funding. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
10) To fund transit improvements, Cooper envisions taking on more city debt. “It’s gonna be many hundred million dollars, right? Up next year. And then I think it’s a question of looking carefully at the finances, of figuring out how we in effect pay the interest rate on the bonds that’s going to be floated to do that plan,” he told WPLN.
Status: Cooper’s draft transit plan does not follow through on his idea of using bonds to fund transit improvements. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
11) Cooper wants better bus shelters, park-and-ride lots and neighborhood transit centers. (Policy Platform page 25)
Status: The draft of Cooper’s transit plan addresses the need for better bus shelters and neighborhood transit centers. In an early October meeting, City Council approved a resolution that allows for a new Neighborhood Transit Center to be constructed at the intersection of Clarksville Pike and 26th Avenue North. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
12) Cooper says he’ll listen to requests from bus riders to have “buses run more frequently and extend the hours buses operate.” (Policy Platform page 25)
Status: WeGo, the city transit agency, has recently reduced service after a budget cut. The agency is studying its system and intends to suggest ways that routes can be more efficient and more tailored to high-demand ridership areas.
13) “I will fill the 100+ officer vacancies in the police department.” (mailer)
Status: According to MNPD, there is a need for 75 authorized police officers as of mid-September. That number doesn’t include the 67 trainees in the academy. Updated Oct. 8, 2020
14) “I will … fully staff our E-911 call center.” (mailer)
Status: According to the department of emergency communications, there are no vacancies. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
15) “I will ask the police chief to set specific goals for reducing crime, reducing unnecessary uses of force, and improving public levels of satisfaction with the police.” (Policy Platform page 41)
Status: This ask has not taken place, and instead the mayor is part of a nationwide search for a new chief after the retirement of Steve Anderson. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
16) “My administration will reinstitute the practice of conducting an annual survey to measure public levels of trust in the police.” (Policy Platform page 41)
Status: An annual policing survey has not been launched, although the mayor’s office did champion a resident survey to guide the police chief search. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
17) “We need implicit bias and de-escalation training that goes above-and-beyond the standards required by the State of Tennessee.” (Policy Platform page 42)
Status: Cooper’s administration says the Police Committee and Workforce Committee of the Policing Policy Commission are currently developing recommendations to enhance MNPD training on de-escalation and to explore ways to expand implicit bias training. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
18) Cooper promises to “attend police-resident meetings in every precinct each year as mayor.” (mailer)
Status: Just getting started.
Much of Cooper’s campaign message on housing was to undercut the existing proposal by David Briley. As is stands, the new mayor doesn’t have a single cohesive plan, nor measurable targets for how many housing units he wants created.
19) “I will facilitate the creation of a real ten-year plan to preserve and create a meaningful number of affordable housing units at an appropriate price with measurable results.” (Policy Platform page 4)
Status: The Mayor’s office says it is currently working on the ten-year plan. Previously, the mayor postponed and ultimately reduced the grants available from the Barnes Affordable Housing Trust Fund, citing emergency needs related to Metro’s budget shortfall. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
20) Cooper wants to include affordable housing “as part of every development Metro incentivizes.” (Policy Platform page 19)
Status: As a councilmember, Cooper sponsored a Metro Council ordinance that requires the city to contribute an equal amount to the Barnes Housing Trust Fund whenever giving incentives to companies. The policy passed but hasn’t been used because incentives have not been put to use. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
21) Cooper says he’ll use tax increment financing to aid affordable housing projects. (Policy Platform page 32)
Status: Cooper says he’s exploring other efficient options to address the need. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
22) Cooper says he’ll establish a revolving loan fund for affordable housing, seeded with an initial $10 million from Metro. (Policy Platform page 33)
Status: This hasn’t been fulfilled yet. Cooper says he will continue issuing grants to help nonprofits get more money from lenders. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
The mayor has spoken often about expanding city parks and greenways, as well as the programming that’s conducted in the parks.
23) “I will commit to a goal of raising the percentage of Nashvillians who live within a 10-minute walk of a park from 37 to 50 percent.” (Policy Platform pages 45-46)
Status: Some progress. As of May 2020, the percentage is up to 43% — although the city’s overall ParkScore ranking has fallen to 70th among the 100 most populous cities. This metric of parks access is evaluated annually by The Trust for Public Land. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
24) Cooper vows to diversify how Metro funds its parks, citing a city report that found “our parks system is unusually dependent on a single source of funding compared to park systems in our peer cities. … Other cities have found new funding sources by creating citywide park improvement districts and by creating business improvement districts around parks, identifying sponsorship opportunities, and developing more robust public-private partnerships to support our parks.” (Policy Platform page 46)
Status: Still assessing if it’s practical.
The mayor has beaten back suggestions that Metro needs to raise taxes to fund its services or his campaign promises. Instead, he suggests the city can reap more money from other sources, such as tourism-related taxes, and by again searching the city budget for cuts and efficiencies.
25) “We can obtain additional revenue from tourism and development.” (Policy Platform pages 8-9)
Status: Perhaps the mayor’s clearest successes so far have been following through on this goal. Cooper secured an annual contribution of $12 million from the Convention Center Authority. And an additional, one-time, $3.6 million payment is being provided by the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation this year as part of the city’s emergency budget plan. The corporation says it volunteered that money from its reserves after talks with the mayor’s staff. Updated Dec. 19, 2019.
26) “The Music City Center does not pay property taxes; perhaps it should before we raise residents’ property taxes.” (Policy Platform page 10)
Status: Largely achieved, and quickly. The mayor and Convention Center Authority announced Oct. 10 that an annual payment-in-lieu-of-taxes would be given to Metro. It’s worth $12.6 million in the first year, based on what the facility would be charged in property taxes if it wasn’t exempt. The amount could change later if the tax rate is adjusted. The board for the Authority formally adopted the agreement on Nov. 7. Updated Nov. 7, 2019.
27) “I will provide robust support for the Blue Ribbon Commission to identify savings and revenue opportunities.” (Policy Platform page 13)
Status: The Blue-Ribbon Commission is suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The commission delivered its first report in April and decided in December to narrow its focus to tourism matters in 2020. Mayor Cooper created the Office of Performance Management, which has implemented a system to track Metro’s operational performance on a monthly basis. While Cooper helped create the team, he has said that it needs more expertise to fulfill its mission of finding government savings and innovative practices. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
28) “I will end the giveaway culture that is more focused on enriching a small elite than serving our entire city.” “Bad deals and park giveaways will end when I become mayor.” (Policy Platform pages 13 and 16)
Status: In February, Cooper negotiated with Nashville SC to shift more of the stadium’s cost to the team and to change how an important piece of public property will be used in the project. The Metro Council, meanwhile, approved a controversial land deal involving E.S. Rose Park.
NEW GOVERNMENT OFFICES
Mayors have latitude to establish priorities within the mayor’s office, and beyond — although creating standalone departments come with recurring costs.
29) The mayor wants to create a city Department of Transportation (Policy Platform page 27)
Status: Cooper is reviewing the best way for the realignment of the transportation and solid waste functions at the Department of Public Works. This idea was proposed as part of NashvilleNext and targeted for potential completion during the Megan Barry administration by 2017. A Metro planning document at the time suggested that Metro was struggling to pursue major transportation improvements without a focused department, and was struggling to compete for federal grants. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
30) “I also support creating an independent Metro Inspector General.” (Policy Platform page 3)
Status: The mayor created a Public Integrity Task Force on Oct. 22 to examine whether such a position is needed. The task force says the position would improve training, compliance and enforcement in ethics and public integrity. The position is waiting for the next fiscal year to be funded. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
31) In interviews and debates, Cooper says he wants a new department of affordable housing, separate from the mayor’s office or the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.
Status: No progress reported publicly.
Cooper says government transparency is his “mission.”
32) The mayor wants to “develop an enforceable ethics code that would apply to all Metro departments and employees.” (Policy Platform page 19)
Status: The mayor’s Public Integrity Task Force recommends the clarification of existing rules that are about ethics and conflicts of interest. The task force recommended annual training, which will happen once the Office of Inspector General is funded. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.
33) “We will conduct and publish performance audits to confirm that that money we allocate is being used where it should be used,” he says of affordable housing grants. (Policy Platform page 34)
Status: The Barnes Housing Trust Fund was audited in 2019, with some concerns identified.
34) Cooper wants to “review Metro’s current open records practices, to make sure that the public’s work is being done in a lawful, transparent, and public way.” (Policy Platform page 19)
Status: Metro officials have reported an increasing number of records requests. The Public Integrity Task Force didn’t recommend any changes to existing to policies. Updated Oct. 8, 2020.