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VOL. 43 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 23, 2019

John Cooper Q and A: Take care to remain 'livable city'

By Kathy Carlson

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Metro Councilman-at-large John Cooper says in other cities "all the money from tourism goes back to tourism'' while Nashville residents don't get the return.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Q: What do you see as the role of the mayor? What can the mayor do? What can the mayor not do?

A: “The mayor is given clearly in Nashville a dominant role in setting the tone for the city. That does not necessarily jump out at you from the (Metro) Charter ...

"but if you have been a council-at-large (member) I think you do accept the fact that Nashville is one of the strongest mayoral systems.

“A little bit of that is by custom here and some of it is profoundly in the charter. …

“The budget and finance chair is powerful because they offer the budget substitute [a substitute from the mayor’s proposed budget]; … only they can offer the substitute. The substitute is usually what is passed [by Metro Council] in negotiation with the mayor. If there’s no agreement the mayor’s budget takes effect.

“I think there are only five departments that the mayor directly appoints out of 56 but then the mayor appoints all the boards [of the other city departments, such as the members of the Metro Planning Commission], which then appoint the head of the department. The mayor has indirect influence there.

“If you add up all these things both by charter and by practice, the mayor in Nashville is given an unusually large power. … The people who wrote the charter were aware of the weaknesses of the traditional city and county government and came up with a little bit of a compromise but they definitely created a strong mayor (even though the charter doesn’t specifically use those words).

“One of the sources of power is how weak the council is, with 40 members. … (It has changed over the years but) essentially, historically, it has had no staff, no information gathering (powers) on its own; it’s just up to the individual 40 members.

“… (In current practice) the council does not confirm a mayoral appointment; theoretically it could but the practice is very different. … It’s not a confirmation hearing (for proposed appointees); they’re not really asked (policy questions).

“… The role of the mayor in Nashville is very powerful by charter, custom and by a relatively weak council.

“Historically the council and the mayor have been often either a rubber stamp or bumper cars and have never really learned to work together in more collaborative, parliamentary fashion.

“(The) council could be very powerful … when it needs to be and it has occasionally in the last four years done that.

“The council changed the wording of the (ballot) language on the (2018) transit referendum to something that was more balanced than the administration’s original wording. The original wording was such dense legalese. (Council) slowly transformed it to something remarkably clear that deals with the totality in relatively few words. … – and the council did what was hard to do.’’

Q: Do you want to change the charter?

A: “No. Why I’m running for mayor is to use where we are, for the mayor to create a great city and a Chapter 2 city.’’

Q: What’s your vision for the city as mayor?

A: “Chapter 1 of Nashville: Let’s date the founding of modern Nashville from the saving of the Ryman Auditorium (two generations ago, Cooper says later in the interview) and that phase thereafter when we were very worried about our downtown, and we did a whole lot of things from a whole lot of different policy objectives to create a great downtown…

“Chapter 2, I believe, we should date from the saving of Fort Negley (and the idea that) we need all of our assets, that though development is worthy we have to be more careful about preserving and creating a livable city. …

“The greatness of our city going forward in the next century is, we got this far, really, by the city not making any money off of tourism. All of the tourism money went back into tourism, and we engineered it to be that way, to be sure, but now … we have this envied thing which is a huge tourism space downtown, and it’s never really contributed anything back to the residents. Should it contribute something back to residents, you’re going to build an incredible city.

“See, (in Nashville) all the money from tourism goes back to tourism. Florida, Branson, every other place has figured out how to make money off of tourism and views tourism as one of their great, great assets. We were so busy building it that we didn’t do Chapter 2, which is how do we then use that to create a great city.

“The Music City Center downtown has seven sources of tax revenue, including the hotel-motel tax and the downtown sales tax. The tax revenue to the Music City Center this year will probably be four times what the upside estimate was only 10 years ago. [William Fox, the University of Tennessee economist who prepared financial projections for the convention center] hoped that in 2018, the convention center would collect $39-$40 million in taxes from its seven sources of revenue.

“A recent memorandum of understanding between Metro Nashville and the Music City Center provides for the Music City Center to reimburse Metro at the rate of $10 million a year for Metro’s expenses in support of the Music City Center.

“The MOU reveals the ability of (the Music City Center) to (contribute to the Metro general fund) legally.

“Of course (Metro) can be reimbursed for expenses and of course the Music City Center can pay property taxes the same as NES pays property taxes…

“This will be a long discussion but the strategic goal is, we’ve gotten this far without any contribution from tourism to the general fund. Think where we can go if, like every other city and country, (we) use tourism revenues as a building block for a great city. That is Chapter 2.’’

Q: What would you do as Nashville’s mayor to support public schools?

A: “That’s where the money needs to go. … That’s our biggest limiter of a great future both in terms of recruitment – if you’re, in fact, going to have people (move to Nashville) from away from here – and for the quality of lives of our own children.

“So you wander into this current craziness where you’re paying people to come here for jobs that our children can’t have … so if you’re going to pay people to come here, it should at least be for jobs that our own people can have. … (Instead of) paying for people to come here, … I think they’ll come here anyway because the super-regional city is a very successful format in America right now.

[He mentions Portland and Denver, along with Nashville, as super-regional cities.]

“(A super-regional city is) a health care and educational center of a certain size and that’s where people want to live and where everybody has to go for their services. It’s just a very successful form factor.

“… You’ve got to then invest in the human capital to have our people take advantage of the opportunities of the new city.

“That means going right at the school system and doing everything you can.’’

Q: How will the city pay for improvements and changes going forward?

A: “There’s a facile answer to this, which is just raise property taxes, but then that makes that harder on the residents who are here. There’s an economic injustice that their taxes are being raised to accommodate people who aren’t even from here for jobs that they can’t have and which particularly in the tourism zone should be paying their share of the cost that the county is experiencing. …

“One of those costs you see directly thru Airbnb, which once you put, in effect, hotel rooms in a neighborhood – now, it’s a great tourist experience, I’m told, and we need to be aware of providing great tourist experiences – but who gets the hotel taxes from Airbnb? It goes to Music City Center.

“Your neighborhood’s value goes up, you pay higher property taxes and the reason is that the Airbnb next door is kind of a quasi-commercial business but it’s paying taxes back to tourism, which you’re never going see any money from.

“This is what I mean by rebalancing the financing of the county.

This work in Nashville right now, only a mayor can do, and this is why I’m running for mayor.

“And we will have a really great future if now we remember to use this fantastic asset that has been built – which is a tourism business half the size of Japan’s. Thirty million tourists (come to) Japan, 15 and a half million in Nashville. It is true that a lot of our tourists drive down from Louisville and everybody going to Japan has a long plane ride and they stay longer than ours do, but you’re talking about a globally sized tourism business. …

“Once again if we don’t figure out how to make (tourism) into an asset for the residents, then why did we do it?’’

Q: Why did we do it?

A: “Well, we did it. … Now my important work as mayor will be to rebalance the finances of the city.’’

Q: Can you talk about affordable housing in Nashville, tying tax-increment financing to affordable housing?

A: “I want to say (Former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who served from 1999-2007) always did TIFs with affordable housing. He told me all his TIFs had affordable housing (components), then the practice seems to have stopped.

“Unless you hold developments to a high standard – of course no one wants to do anything that costs some money. This is where you have to have a mayor that’s on it to negotiate the best deal for everybody, and if you lose that supervision from the process. …

“It’s just embarrassing that incentives – the 10 acres given at the fairgrounds for the stadium for soccer – it took a private party to negotiate any affordable housing provisions.’’

[Cooper referred to transportation and transit issues from his policy platform, listing guiding principles on transportation:}

Upgrade our bus system: “One in four urban residents does not have access to a vehicle. Only 12.9% of Davidson County households live within a half mile of high-frequency bus service at rush hour. I’m committed to increasing that to 25% and also bringing the percentage of households living within a half mile of all-day frequent service up from 0% to 12.9%.”

He also calls for “covered, well-lit stops where people can wait safely and comfortably,” more sidewalks so people can walk to a bus stop, and increasing the frequency and hours in which buses operate. Switching from the current spoke-and-hub system to a grid model for bus routes and adding cross-town and connector routes also should be investigated.

Tackle traffic, not just transit: This includes fixing problem intersections, utilizing smart traffic signals, widening lanes, limiting construction lane closures, reducing reliance on single-occupancy vehicle trips, building on the Nashville Connector Transportation Demand Management system, encouraging downtown workers to find alternatives to driving.

In addition:

Consider having Metro workers handle sidewalk construction as a means of lowering costs.

Improve safety for drivers and pedestrians.

Create a Nashville Department of Transportation to consolidate all of the city’s transportation functions.

Develop a new transportation plan within the first year.

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