by Dave Carew
Is Mayor Karl Dean correct when he says property taxes in Nashville must be raised? Is his rationale legitimate—or is there a better way to fund Metro government?
I don’t think the answer is obvious—one way or the other. But I also think the mainstream Nashville media has been remiss in not allowing the opposition more opportunity to express its viewpoint. To partially counter that, Underground Nashville asked Ken Marrero of the Nashville Tea Party to answer questions about the controversy:
UNDERGROUND NASHVILLE: Why does the Nashville Tea Party oppose Mayor Dean’s proposed property tax hike?
KM: It is irresponsible for the mayor to increase taxes on Davidson County residents to pay for pay raises for Metro employees and to extend and expand demonstrably failed programs when the economy is in such bad shape and when everything has not been done to address the root causes for the programatic failures. The mayor seems to be acting on the premise that it is the right and privilege of government to continually expand and the joy and privilege of citizens to simply pay for everything government demands.
In forcing the largest tax increase in Nashville history down the throats of taxpayers, the mayor has shown complete and utter disregard and contempt for the wishes and desires of those he was elected to represent. This is Karl Dean’s budget, not a Nashville budget. Dean could have presented his budget weeks or months earlier and let us know what his thoughts and intentions for the city’s future were. We then could have had an extended and public debate about what we wanted and were willing to pay for. This would have been the action of a statesman. Instead, Dean waited until the last possible moment to announce his draconian tax increase and left basically no time to respond. Worse, given the way Metro’s budget process operates by charter, it left little time for any alternative to be drafted, considered, and passed. This is the action of a dictator.
UN: What do you believe would be a more effective alternative?
KM: It is difficult to state what, exactly, I would like to see as an alternative. Not because I don’t have any thoughts on the matter. But because the mayor’s deliberate efforts to limit and curtail public input from the very people he is forcing to pay for his $100 million expansion of government make it very difficult to do so.
In case you are unaware, let me explain that, by Metro Charter, once the mayor proposes a budget, unless the Council can propose and pass an alternative budget by midnight on June 30, the mayor’s original budget automatically is adopted. Thus, every last citizen in Nashville could oppose the mayor’s plan and every last Councilman could oppose it as well—but unless a viable alternative can be developed and passed, the budget unanimously hated by all would still become law. The mayor knows this and, while he has had months to develop and craft his budget, has left any opponents only six weeks to develop an alternative. In addition, any alternative must come from a Councilman. Citizens cannot propose one. Further, the time that a Councilman might have to develop any alternative was intentionally and seriously curtailed by the mayor, since he delayed getting the line-item budget to the Council until the day before the Council was to begin both public hearings and departmental reviews. With personal and professional lives, departmental reviews, public hearings, AND trying to understand the current budget and develop—not just an alternative budget but one that would pass the Council and to do so in just six weeks—the mayor has handicapped any attempt to make serious changes or revisions to his proposal. Again, with his budget being set to become law regardless, it is an intentional, calculated ploy on the mayor’s part to do it this way.
My desired alternative—a lengthy conversation between Karl Dean and his bosses, the taxpayers—is thus impossible due to Dean’s fait accompli in budget presentation shenanigans. My other desired alternative—for Karl Dean to put the interests of Nashville taxpayers ahead of his own personal ambition—cannot happen, either. Dean should never have spent millions of dollars on parks, greenways, and other nice, but unnecessary things and should never have restructured the city’s debt to give us the balloon payment next year. This would have meant any increase he asked for to be significantly less than $100 million. If things are so dire that we need a $100 million increase this year, how did Dean miss this two, three, and four years ago? He would have served the people of Nashville better had he proposed a more modest tax increase four years ago and started this discussion then. Instead, he kept an ill-advised campaign promise and then spent profligately for years and now wants to hand taxpayers the bill. Were a corporate CEO to do this, he’d be tarred and feathered by stockholders. Instead, Dean is buying votes and killing time until he gets what he wants, and not what is best for Nashville taxpayers.
UN: Is there an opposition entity that has proposed a specific alternative budget?
KM: Practically, the Beacon Center of Tennessee has identified any number of expenses that could and should be cut from the budget, to make Dean’s irresponsible increase unnecessary or, at a minimum, less destructive to the property and incomes of Nashvillians. These expenses and other factors are being considered and used as the basis to propose an alternative to the mayor’s central-planning nightmare. The hope is that reasonable and courageous Councilmen can be found to support it. Reasonable in that—unless you are a Metro employee being bought off by the mayor—there is clearly no need at all for $100 million more dollars next year than this year. Not unless the mayor and his staff have been asleep for four years and/or are incompetent. Which is also an argument not to give such people what they are asking for. Enabling incompetence is worse than the incompetence itself. Courageous in that, in true statist fashion, the mayor appears to be pulling out all the stops to “protect” his budget. This includes threatening Councilmen that, if they don’t support his agenda, their Districts won’t see a dime for the remainder of his time as mayor. The Council is being threatened with either a huge tax increase, getting nothing from the huge tax increase, or both. I don’t envy the Councilmen their agonizing over their choices.
UN: What does the Nashville Tea Party plan to do to fight Mayor Dean’s proposed tax increase?
KM: There are two main tracks that the opposition is taking. The first is to educate and inform Nashville as to what’s about to happen. Both in terms of the tax increases they will face this year and next year, as well as the dangers of having a mayor who simply ignores the welfare of his city and citizens when making decisions of great import. The tax increase by itself would be bad. But an unengaged and unconcerned mayor who holds the power the Nashville Charter gives our mayor is far worse and far more dangerous. The mayor has demonstrated an attitude that is dismissive and out of touch with the people of Nashville when it comes to the most important decisions of his tenure. From the Convention Center to the Fairgrounds and now the tax increase, the mayor has championed the opposite of the will of the people he is to represent. Only where the mayor was forced to listen to the people in terms of the Fairgrounds did he back down. That was a much more open-ended fight, with time to mobilize and make known our opposition to his out-of-touch viewpoint. The mayor learned that lesson and intentionally left Nashvillians basically no time at all to fight him on this. Karl Dean is the man in the joke who, when he and his friend are confronted by an angry bear says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you!” In the budget fight, Karl Dean doesn’t have to take the time to confront angry taxpayers. He just has to make it until July 1 without doing so. Then it doesn’t matter.
Secondly, we are working to organize the broad spectrum of Nashvillians who oppose the tax increase. Policy wonks, businessmen, Council members and other politicians, activists, regular citizens and taxpayers, property owners, investors, landlords, renters, students, the elderly—black, white, brown, male, and female—the breadth of demographics of people who oppose the mayor’s plans is staggering. Consider that just in 2009—when considering exactly this sort of property tax increase—77 per cent of Nashvillians said they didn’t want it without having it put to them for a vote. Three short years later, Karl Dean is not only raising taxes by the most they’ve ever been raised, but doing so by intentionally, refusing to give Nashvillians a say in the matter. It doesn’t take a genius to see that people, in large numbers, are not going to be happy about that.
The goal is to force Karl Dean’s budget out with a valid alternative. The goal is to require Nashville government to be responsive to the needs and wishes of its constituents. The goal is to have local government here in Tennessee more closely mirror state government—cut taxes and spending—thereby putting our city in the fiscal place from which we can grow and prosper. We have the examples of high tax/irresponsible spending cities and states like Detroit, Illinois, and California to guide us. There is no need for Nashville to follow such demonstrably failed and destructive policy. Incredibly, that’s what Karl Dean wants for Nashville. He needs to be stopped.
David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter.” He also is a freelance book editor, publicist, seminar and workshop leader, journalist, and advertising/marketing/public relations writer.
Do you want to help homeless people in Nashville learn culinary arts and other employment skills that provide a specific, effective path off the streets? Please visit Lambscroft.org. Please also consider coming to ParkLife, the benefit concert for Lambscroft, to be held in Sevier Park in 12South on a Saturday in August or September (date TBA soon). Thank you.
Editor’s Note: “Underground Nashville” covers artists, authors, musicians, poets, political figures, and other compelling people and happenings not typically covered by the mainstream Nashville media. It also presents reflections and commentary from an underground/indie perspective, offering “thoughts from the shadows of a great American city.”