Month: August 2018

No Free Lunch

Is it possible to have A+ top-notch civic services and amenities AND a super-low property tax rate (both historically & compared to other Tennessee cities) AND no income tax?

There are two potential answers: “Of course not! That doesn’t make sense.” and “I don’t know. Maybe it works with enough tourism money and people moving to town??” The Metro government by its choices is going with the second of these and trying to make it work.

I think the lesson we’re learning is that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The city does keep adding top-notch amenities and the tax rate is super-low. But, this is not free by any means. Let’s look at the evidence.

Metro has had to renege on pay plan promises to employees:

The city’s debt as a percent of its budget keeps growing even during a boom time:

Metro’s FY19 Treasurer’s Report disclosed that Metro’s long term debt per capita has risen to be the second highest of any big city in America:

Meanwhile, Metro’s unfunded retiree benefit obligation (OPEB) keeps growing. This is now a $3 billion obligation that is NOT included in the long-term debt numbers:

For comparison, the State of Tennessee has an operating budget more than a dozen times bigger than Metro’s budget, while the State’s unfunded retiree benefit obligation is smaller than Metro’s (at $2.6B):

People will continue to argue about whether to blame a low tax rate, economic incentives, or both. But for now, does it matter? The Metro government already has chosen by its actions to have very tight revenue for at least the next few years. I believe that any new discretionary spending must give Metro a reasonably good short term financial return. Otherwise, I don’t see how Metro can rationalize spending the money.

Let me wrap up by reminding everyone that Nashville has a broadly booming economy. This situation comes with a lot of opportunity. The city must reassess and fix economic incentives and the tax rate. Both need to be right-sized so that the city government can excel at providing schools, police and fire protection, and other basic government services.

I’ll vote in favor of the community oversight referendum

The Election Commission voted today to put the Community Oversight Board referendum on the upcoming November 6 ballot. I’ll vote in favor of the referendum.

Nationally, community oversight and advisory boards comes in many shapes and sizes. All have strengths and weaknesses. There probably are not any examples that make everyone happy.

If you want to learn about the different approaches and models, and their pros and cons, you can start with this PBS Frontline article from 2016. From there, just google something like “community oversight board strengths and weaknesses” or “civilian review board effectiveness,” and you’ll zero in on the basic arguments for and against the several predominant models. I think this is useful background information for everyone to have in thinking about the referendum.

It is important to me that there is broad consensus that Nashville should have some kind of civilian community board. On November 8, 2017, in an email to Council members, the FOP told us: “The Fraternal Order of Police is not opposed to some manner of an advisory board that is compliant with current law.” At a major NOAH event on October 29, 2017, Mayor Barry also said that she would support a community oversight board if it resulted from a discussion among all interested groups. And now Mayor Briley has also supported the concept in general.

Of course, now we have a specific proposal and it will be on the ballot. The language is here.

Is the referendum compliant with current law? I guess we will find out if a lawsuit is filed, but I think it is. This referendum language fixes several previous legal objections. For example, a complaint made about the legislation that was before the Council last year was that the scope of the subpoena power was unlawfully broad. The current referendum language definitely defeats this objection. The referendum does this by making the power to compel evidence and testimony a part of the Metro Charter. And advocates also are now armed with a Tennessee Attorney General Opinion from March 2018 that suggests the referendum language about compelling evidence is legal.

There was a second significant legal objection to the prior legislative version. The bill the Council considered last year would have required in some instances that the police department follow the direction of the oversight board. This was potentially in conflict with the Metro Charter, which gives the police chief wide discretion and authority to run the police department. To address this concern, the referendum would only allow the proposed oversight board to issue recommendations and reports. Under the referendum, the police department would not be required to accept the oversight board’s recommendations.

There are a few other factors to keep in mind. Civilian oversight of our protectors – locally or at the state or federal level – is a core principle of democracy. Metro already has civilian oversight of the police department. While the police chief has wide latitude under the Charter to run his department how he wants, that power is limited by civilian control. The Charter explains that the police chief “…shall make regulations, with the approval of the mayor and in conformity with applicable ordinances, concerning the operation of the department, the conduct of the officers and employees thereof, their uniforms, arms and other equipment for their training.” Nashville has about doubled in population since the Charter was drafted. It’s not unreasonable or anti-police to add another layer of formality to the existing civilian oversight of the police department. To the contrary, we should all be able to agree that sunlight, transparency, oversight, and checks and balances lead to better results.

Finally, it is Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail that most compels me to vote for the referendum. His words have as much meaning today as they did in 1963. Here’s the key point:

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Any “yeah, but…” argument that the referendum language could be better just furthers the “myth of time” that Dr. King exposed in his letter. The better path is to embrace modernizing Nashville’s civilian oversight as an important step forward for the city.

Statement about shooting video

The video released today of the officer-involved fatal shooting of Mr. Hambrick is troubling. The video appears to show Mr. Hambrick being fatally shot in the back while running away from the officer. I will reserve final judgment until the investigation is complete and all of the evidence is released. But, this video suggests that MNPD’s active interdiction policies led to a traffic stop for “erratic driving” which in turn led to a fatal shooting in the back.

Nashville prides itself on coming together as a community to solve difficult problems. I call on Mayor Briley and Chief Anderson to not just conduct a policy review, but to immediately, openly, and transparently examine whether MNPD’s interdiction policies are having a racially discriminatory impact in Nashville. I call on Mayor Briley and Chief Anderson to immediately support the creation of a community board to participate lawfully in police policy-making and in reviewing officer discipline matters.

America is an experiment in democracy. America strives to be a more perfect union. Nashville has been and remains an active part of the experiment. Just as America wrote slavery into her Constitution, Nashville from the beginning was built on the backs of enslaved people. In the 1800s, the institutions of Nashville’s government allowed enslaved people to be sold on its public grounds and to be hung from its bridges. From the Hermitage to Belle Meade to Ft. Negley to the State Capitol, forced labor, bondage, and slavery literally built Nashville.

When the Civil War ended slavery, prejudice held fast. We know it took another 100 years before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. Did legal desegregation end all systemic government discrimination? We know intuitively that it did not.

Beyond intuition, we know that the 2016 Gideon’s Army report documented that African Americans in Nashville are pulled over for traffic stops more frequently than white drivers. The claim by some is that this difference is entirely due to policing strategies that focus on high crime areas. But talk to black Nashvillians. I won’t recount their stories here, but know that they get pulled over more often and in more places than I do.

This is a difficult topic. For black citizens, it is husbands and sons, and wives and daughters, being pulled over. For officers, the perceived implication that there might be intentional bias is insulting. For all, it is intensely personal and further evidence of a need to unite everyone by creating just policies and review.

Everyone agrees that active discrimination must be rooted out and eliminated. The real challenge is how to talk about implicit, unconscious bias. And unfortunately, while MNPD trains its officers about implicit bias, its highest leadership previously has denied that officers or policies ever exhibit any implicit bias. This approach is confusing. MNPD leadership acknowledges that unconscious racially discriminatory bias exists generally in our society, but has denied it exists in MNPD.

There are strong historical and current reasons to want to ask whether there is a racial bias either in setting policing strategies in Nashville, or in the impact those policies have. As a city, Nashville must insist on asking where and how bias and prejudice may be baked into our institutions. Does the policy choice to create flex units or task forces that intentionally seek confrontation as a strategy to interdict crime have a racially discriminatory and deadly impact? Asking and answering these questions is required if we want a more perfect union.

This is not an academic question. Twice in 18 months in Nashville, these interdiction policies led to traffic stops where white officers shot and killed black men. At the highest levels, the city must examine whether policy choices are a contributing cause of these shootings, and the city must examine whether the impact is racially discriminatory. Confronting these issues head on  will lead to a more just Nashville for all of us.