TO: Mayor John Cooper and the Members of the Metro Council
Like many of us, I have been watching the financial situation of our Metro Nashville government closely in the glare of reports regarding our inability to fund essential services. As I’ve known for several years, our city was spending funds that it did not have in the push to expand growth and there would be a time when that spending would catch up with us. Things were difficult enough without the tornadoes and the COVID-19 outbreak, but those situations have pushed us to the brink and I recognize that something has to be done.
As a homeowner in Nashville, the thought of seeing a tax increase isn’t desirable. I, like many in our community, have not seen much reward from the development boom in our city thus seeing an increase in taxes is hard to swallow when major corporations have seemed to benefit from our generosity. Yet, while paying more will certainly require sacrifice on my part, I am convinced that it is past time for the citizens of Nashville to take responsibility for ensuring that the essential services that are part of being a major city are paid for. We are past due for a tax increase (based for the most part on political considerations) and while I wish for a more graduated plan of increase, I understand that the failure to act in the past makes this adjustment more painful.
However, while I support a tax increase, I am concerned with our city priorities in regard to the use of those funds. While I make no claim to fully understanding Mayor Cooper’s budget, by and large, I see priorities that fail to fully address the needs and concerns of poor and working-class Nashvillians. This includes decreases in education and social services spending while prioritizing a police department budget that does not include needed reforms to ensure the safety of all Nashvillians, especially persons of color and other marginalized communities.
For far too many years (going back to the Dean administration) I have watched with dismay ongoing cuts to social service programs that work to assist persons in need, helping them to obtain the resources needed to move them out of poverty and despair. I believe that our city is experiencing the consequences of these cuts through increased homelessness, youth violence, and other concerns. Our city has attempted to outsource social services to the faith community which is struggling to meet the need in a culture that is more suspicious of religious institutions and who is likewise financially strapped due to decreases in donations during the COVID-19 outbreak. It is time for our Metro government to assume the responsibility of assisting ALL citizens to experience the benefits of our growth and popularity, not just a few business owners in the downtown entertainment district.
Given what we have experienced this past week, I am shocked that providing body cameras for all officers has been delayed again due to “budget concerns.” This issue of importance promised in the past in response to questionable police violence against African American men has been kicked down the road for so long that I have no other conclusion but to believe that this is simply another case of a policing system and government that is determined to avoid accountability.
Unlike some in the community, I am not opposed to adequate spending for public safety, but I want to ensure that spending is directed toward better training for implicit bias and deescalation skills, bonuses for officers that demonstrate excellence in policing, and other initiatives that promote a vision of policing that treats people with dignity while maintaining the safety of our city. I also recognize that our police department is understaffed and needs to be better equipped for the difficult task we have given them.
Of course, education spending has been an issue for many years and again we are seeing budgeting which inadequately addresses the needs of our schools and teachers. Teachers need to be paid at levels that honor and respect the influence they have over our children. Failures in education will be with us for a long time and manifest themselves in poverty and a lack of opportunity.
I recognize that you find yourself in a difficult position. Some of this was inherited by the decisions of previous councils and administrations. However, you were elected for the task of managing the well being of our city — a well being that is a balancing act between the needs of multiple constituencies. I have confidence that you have the ability to discern a way forward that builds on the work already done to discern a budget that reflects a great city in which the needs and concerns of all are balanced. This is a time for leadership, and I will be praying for you in your deliberations.
Rev. Jay Voorhees