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Mayor John Cooper Gives 57th Annual State of Metro With Social Distancing Measures in Place at Historic Metro Courthouse

3/31/2020
Chris Song

Mayor Cooper discusses Nashville’s response to March 3 tornado, coronavirus outbreak, and on-going financial challenges as nation confronts economic recession

“This may well be the greatest set of challenges Nashville has ever faced…But we will get through them. And we will be a greater city for finding solutions and moving forward together.”

Nashville and Davidson County Mayor John Cooper today gave the 57th Annual State of Metro Address in the David Scobey Council Chamber at Historic Metro Courthouse. In an effort to further mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, public access for this year’s State of Metro was limited to program participants. A livestream of the event was made available by Metro Nashville Network to elected officials, Metro employees, local media, and Nashville residents.

During his address, Mayor Cooper remarked on the empty council chamber and unusual arrangement of the livestreamed event to illustrate the public health emergency the city is facing in the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed three lives in Davidson County with 541 confirmed cases to date.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects in Nashville follow a March 3 tornado that destroyed or damaged 2,242 structures and claimed two lives in Davidson County. Metro Government also entered the final quarter of the 2019-20 fiscal year with thinned cash balances and mounting debt payments.

“This is an unprecedented time for our city,” said Mayor John Cooper. “Today is the most unusual State of Metro speech in our history. Our community is connected even when we have to stay apart. This chamber may be empty, but our hearts are full; our resolve is strong…This may well be the greatest set of challenges Nashville has ever faced. These are hard times. But we will get through them. And we will be a greater city. We will find solutions and move forward together.”

March 3 tornado: “Never has Nashville stood stronger.”

In addressing the first of Nashville’s three historic challenges, Mayor Cooper reflected on his visit to Nashville Farmers’ Market in the early morning hours of March 3rd, which had temporarily served as an emergency gathering point, and to devastated areas in North Nashville, where he witnessed a groundswell of community support for displaced neighbors whose homes were destroyed.

“As the morning dawned, people came together,” said Mayor Cooper. “Churches played a key role in bringing people together. One church, Lee Chapel AME, didn’t have electric power, but it had its pastor, Representative Harold Love, who was there leading the response with many, man, many others including Deputy Mayor Brenda Haywood. Throughout the day and in the days that followed, hundreds of volunteers converged on Lee Chapel, bringing food, supplies, and offers of help and hope.”

“That week, more than 26,000 individuals signed up to volunteer with Hands On Nashville,” Mayor Cooper added. “That’s 4,000 more people than volunteered in the 8 months following the 2010 flood. Never has Nashville stood stronger.”

Since March 3rd, Metro departments and partner agencies have cleared 116 blocked roads and 60 alleyways, repaired infrastructure at 335 intersections and 72 downed traffic signals, removed 5,128 truckloads of debris totaling over 239,000 cubic yards, and restored power to nearly 50,000 homes.

The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has received over $9.9 million in contributions from 21,414 donors and has made grants to 42 nonprofits to help with tornado recovery efforts. Grantee organizations include Hands on Nashville, Lee Chapel AME Church, Gideon’s Army, Martha O’Bryan Center, Donelson Fellowship, Rooftop Nashville, and NeedLink Nashville.

Residents affected by the storm who need shelter or food assistance can dial 2-1-1. The Metro Action Commission provides help with rent, mortgage, and utility payments. Dial 3-1-1 or make an online request at hubNashville to find other Metro resources. FEMA is still accepting applications for federal individual assistance at disasterassistance.gov.

Coronavirus outbreak: “What we are doing now will save lives.”

“Our neighborhoods now face yet another challenge – the coronavirus,” said Mayor Cooper. “This is the great challenge of the current moment – the reason this chamber is empty today. We have acted decisively to meet this challenge.”

On March 15, the Metro Board of Health issued an executive order closing entertainment venues. Mayor Cooper formed the Metro Coronavirus Task Force and asked Dr. Alex Jahangir, Chair of the Metro Board of Health and a renowned trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, to serve as Nashville’s coronavirus response coordinator.

On March 22, the public health department issued the “Safer at Home” order, directing people not employed in essential occupations to stay at home and not gather in groups for 14 days. The purpose of this order is to slow the pace of the pandemic and to prevent area hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

“Safer at Home” order extended through April 24

In his address, Mayor Cooper announced that the city will be extending the “Safer at Home” order through April 24 to further contain and combat the spread of the coronavirus in Davidson County.

The Metro Public Health Department and Office of Emergency Management, in collaboration with area healthcare providers, have created a Community Assessment System, which includes a COVID-19 Hotline and Community Assessment Centers.

Two assessment center locations are currently active and serving the public – one at Titans Stadium “Lot N” and one at Meharry Medical College at 918 21st Ave N. A third location at 2491 Murfreesboro Pike will open on April 1.

Residents must first call the COVID-19 Hotline at 615-862-7777 before making an in-person visit to a Community Assessment Center location. Hotline hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. Community Assessment Center hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

“Stay home,” said Mayor Cooper. “Practice social distancing – stay 6 feet away from other people, avoid gathering in groups. As Dr. Hildreth, the President of Meharry and a budding TV star, likes to say, ‘Don’t be a vector,’… Although these are still early days, I am encouraged by Nashville’s response to the Safer at Home order. People are observing social distancing and it is making a difference. What we are doing now will save lives.”

On Monday, March 30, Metro departments met to discuss additional measured enforcement procedures to ensure citywide compliance with the “Safer at Home” order to include the Metro Public Health Department, Metro Nashville Police Department, and Metro Nashville Park Police.

Metro finances: “A rainy day…a stormy season.”

“Unexpected disasters such as the tornado and COVID-19 are why cities have rainy day funds,” said Mayor Cooper. “Unfortunately, Metro Government doesn’t have a rainy-day fund, and instead, actually thinned its cash balances. Our lack of a rainy-day fund has left us vulnerable in what has become a stormy season.”

Within the first six months of entering office, the Cooper administration made considerable progress in stabilizing Metro’s finances. In August, the State Comptroller formally instructed Metro to balance its budget, build up cash reserves, and institute a cash management policy.

The Mayor’s Office found more than $30 million in new revenue, including a $12.6 million annual payment in lieu of taxes from the Music City Center, and an additional $3.6 million payment from the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation.

Chief of Operations and Performance Management, Kristin Wilson, is working on other revenue opportunities and created Metro’s first performance management team, and Finance Director Kevin Crumbo put the city on the path to establishing a comprehensive cash management policy and a structurally balanced budget.

During his address, Mayor Cooper announced that the Music City Center has agreed to contribute an additional $35 million to Metro, on top of its payment in lieu of taxes, to help cover the city’s sales tax revenue shortfall caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Q4 revenues estimated $200-$300 million lower than expected

Metro has an excellent insurance policy and will receive public assistance reimbursements from FEMA. But the city is anticipating public recovery and rebuilding costs from the March 3rd tornado.

Locally, costs of the coronavirus outbreak are estimated to be far more serious. Unemployment claims in Tennessee increased by 1,300 percent last week, and a sharp and sudden recession has implications for Metro revenues. With tourism on hold and bars and restaurants temporarily closed, sales and hotel tax collections have fallen sharply.

The Metro Finance Department estimates that revenues from sales taxes and other activity taxes will be $200 to $300 million lower than the city had expected before the COVID-19 pandemic for the fourth quarter of the current fiscal year alone. The impact of the coronavirus disease on the next fiscal year is unknown.

In response, Metro has taken immediate steps to shore up its cash flow, announcing an immediate hiring freeze except for public safety and other critical positions, no promotions or pay raises, and a hold on all travel by Metro personnel.

All departments have been directed to identify immediate cost reduction opportunities, and Metro is delaying all non-essential capital spending. While these actions will reduce city spending by millions of dollars, the city will be required to find hundreds of millions of dollars in other savings and in new revenues.

Budget ordinance will include property tax rate increase

“Let me be direct - the budget ordinance that will be filed with the Council in April will sharply increase the property tax rate from its current historically low level,” said Mayor Cooper. “The final amount will be determined with the best information available. But it will be substantial. This is something we have to do…This is no time for avoiding unpleasant realities or gambling with the city’s future. We must ensure that we have the resources to get us all the way through to the post-virus Nashville…Metro’s finances are in a place where there is no option. We can’t print money or borrow to cover our operating expenses. We must raise property taxes, as difficult as that is right now.”

Mayor Cooper indicated that his office would work with the Finance Department to submit a formal budget to the Metro Council by April 28.

“This is not a budget message, as much as it is a statement of principles,” said Mayor Cooper. “Through careful financial stewardship, we will meet today’s challenges and build a greater city on the other side…We will not lose our vision. This is a season of challenges. But the time will come when we can invest again. And when that season arrives, we will move. We will move forward with plans to make our teachers the best paid teachers in the state of Tennessee. We will have a new transportation plan with solutions for every neighborhood. We will implement a 10-year affordable housing plan. We will have fully staffed fire and police departments, and we will have body cameras.”

“I’m optimistic enough to see that we will get back to having traffic problems in a few months. Visitors will come back to downtown,” added Mayor Cooper. “Our growth will continue. Our ability to respond to two simultaneous emergencies will confirm our place where people want to put their future… We’ve got to meet this challenge. Getting this right can save thousands of lives. We’ve got to and we will. Nashville’s best days are ahead of us. Nashville will take care of each other and, together, we will build a city that works for everyone.”