Nashville voters could end up seeing two Metro Charter amendments on a special ballot in December, with major implications for the power of the city council.
The Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act would cancel the recently approved 34% property tax increase, which the council approved 32-8 in June. It also recommends limiting the council’s power to increase property taxes more than 2% without a voter referendum.
If the act passes, voters would also keep returning to the polls anytime Metro considers a property transfer valued over $5 million and for leases that last at least 20 years, among other provisions.
“The Metro Council needs to stop looking for ways to force this tax hike on Nashville and focus on addressing the root causes of reckless spending and cronyist taxpayer-incentive deals that put us in this situation,” says Americans For Prosperity Tennessee State Director Tori Venable.
More than 20,000 Nashvillians signed a petition to send the matter to a referendum.
But a diverse group of public officials and business leaders oppose the ballot measure. They say it would stop Nashville’s growth, gut the city’s budget and force changes like police officer layoffs and larger public school class sizes.
And on Tuesday night, most members of the Metro Council showed they don’t want to roll back the property tax increase.
They voted 33-4 to put a competing measure on the referendum alongside the tax cap. Its intent is to maintain the council’s authority to set the tax rate, effectively negating the effort to undo and cap tax increases.
“If the people want to restrict Metro government from being able to operate the way it does now, they’ve got a choice,” Councilmember Bob Mendes says. “If the people would like to have Metro operate as it has they’ve got that choice. This is all about empowering the people.”
Both measures could pass at the polls.
But in that scenario, the council’s proposal — to keep its power — would win out. That’s because it includes a provision to guard against sloppy changes to the city’s charter. It says that anytime an amendment causes an internal conflict within the charter, the earlier text will be favored. In this case, that would mean taxation power stays with the council.
The proposals are contingent on a special election being approved by the Davidson County Election Commission, which has not yet taken that step.
Yet another idea, from Councilmember Steve Glover, would also seek to limit the council. But the group declined to take up his measure, meaning that even a future approval for it would send it to voters separately and at a later date.
Another warning from the top
At the same meeting Tuesday, Tennessee’s top money manager — Comptroller Justin P. Wilson — once again warned Metro that a state takeover could be near.
Wilson says a major reduction in revenue, as sought in the Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act, would jeopardize Metro’s balanced budget.
“As it stands today, I’m satisfied that this government meets those conditions. The train is on the track but there is a dangerous curve ahead,” he says.
Wilson says the council should start saving cash in case voters support the referendum.
The comptroller — who had never done so previously — has now addressed Nashville’s council twice in 10 months to issue dire fiscal warnings.