Categories
Politics

An Open Letter to Nashville About Property Taxes

If you follow local politics in Nashville–or just live here and pay attention to where your tax dollars go–you are no doubt familiar with the argument we have been engaged in the last few years about property taxes. Are they too low? Should they be raised? If so, by how much? Or would doing so undermine economic development that’s been fueling the city’s growing tax revenues? What about equity–would a tax increase disproportionately impact lower-income households and accelerate displacement?

Most growing cities like Nashville, especially those in states with low tax burdens, are having some form of this debate. COVID-19 has changed the conversation a bit, but the fundamental issues underlying the debate are still there. For the uninitiated, here’s a primer at WPLN with links at the bottom to related articles for background on the situation here, or check out this recent story in the Tennessean if it’s not behind the paywall. Or, head over to CM Mendes’s website and search for posts on the budget or property taxes and you’ll find more details available there.

Many, many details.

To illustrate, there’s a slide you can count on being in nearly every budget presentation to Metro Council or the public, showing Nashville’s relatively low property tax rate compared to other large cities in Tennessee. Here it is from this year, with the proposed rate for next fiscal year:

Last year:

The year before:

The year before that:

You get the picture. Even before the historically low rate of $3.15 went into effect it was still lower than other large cities in the state.

But does that mean it’s “too low?” Well, that depends on your budgeting philosophy and general outlook on the role of government–something I’m not going to get into here because somebody will inevitably fire back with something along the lines of “government should budget like a household” and I just can’t do it right now. We can have that ridiculous argument when we’re not all wearing protective masks anymore, if you’d like.

What I do want to point out, though, is how limited a view that slide from the budget presentation provides. It’s not inaccurate or misleading; it’s just incomplete, at least in terms of how most people think about taxes. Here’s another way to look at it, with some more context:

At the median, households in Davidson County paid $1,861 in real estate taxes in 2018, third highest in the state behind households in Williamson County and Shelby County. For a household in an owner-occupied unit earning median income of $60,856, that’s 3.1% of income going to real estate taxes, second highest in the state behind Shelby County.

So, just because the tax rate in Nashville is low compared to other places doesn’t mean that the tax burden on residents, and particularly middle to lower income residents, is comparatively low here as well. In fact, they are already facing a combined state and local sales tax rate that ranks among the highest in the country.

And that brings me back to the slide in the budget presentation: Why look at only cities in Tennessee? After all, if we are going to entertain the notion that raising the tax rate could hurt our competitiveness in economic development, we should consider where we rank nationally, with particular attention paid to our competitors for jobs and private investment. We can’t get a complete accounting of Nashville’s competitive standing here without information on taxes paid by households and commercial entities, but this is a start. Maybe the Chamber or another local business association can fill in the gaps during the budget debate at Metro Council.

At the median, real estate taxes paid by households in Nashville are low compared to most other large counties. In 2018, only 20 of the 140 counties with populations of 500,000 or more had lower median real estate taxes paid compared to Nashville. Here’s the list:

Nashville’s relatively low property taxes stand out even more among the nation’s fastest-growing local economies. Forty-four large counties have averaged at least three percent real (inflation adjusted) GDP growth on an annual basis since 2010. Of those counties, Davidson ranks fifth according to the lowest median real estate taxes paid by households, behind Maricopa (Phoenix), Utah (Provo), Oklahoma (OKC), and Tulsa. There were only two other counties with median real estate taxes paid of less than $2,000 in 2018, in suburban areas of Atlanta and Denver.

You would have to ask somebody at the Chamber which regions Nashville competes with most often for projects, but I assume Atlanta and Denver are on that list. Oklahoma City may be as well, but its economic drivers are much different than Nashville’s core industries. You also may have noticed in the table above other regional players in Nashville’s orbit, including the Jeffersons (Birmingham, Louisville), Greenville, and, to a lesser extent, Guilford (Greensboro).

So, if you can fill out this picture with taxes paid by commercial entities and the story doesn’t change much, which I’m guessing is the case, then there’s an argument to be made that raising property taxes may hurt our competitive standing in the region from a cost perspective. However, I don’t believe we are anywhere close to a tax rate that would significantly change Nashville’s most important economic development asset: human capital attraction and retention. Median real estate taxes paid here are considerably lower than places like Charlotte (-21%), Raleigh (-34%), Dallas (-47%), and Austin (-70%).

Yes, that’s correct, 70%. I couldn’t believe it either.

As you watch and hopefully participate in the budget debate over the next few weeks, decide what sort of local government you think we should have in Nashville, even during a crisis. We can do better than clickbait rankings and talking points from special interests. Metro Council is in a tough spot, largely of our own making some would say, but that’s way too convenient and, at times, self-serving for the people pointing fingers. I can’t claim to be completely objective–or above reproach, if you prefer–here given my time at Metro, but I think it’s more than fair to say that our debates about the “right” level of taxation have been lacking in some crucial perspective.

City budgeting is not like a household or a business, and while we’re at it, next time you hear somebody claim that renters don’t pay property taxes please do yourself a favor and just turn around and walk away. Trust me, it’s not worth it.

The “right” level of taxation can only be determined by the community’s willingness to fund what we believe should be the city’s priorities and that will only happen when we are ready to have an honest, inclusive, and data-driven conversation about the pros and cons of doing things like raising the tax rate–and admitting publicly what we know, what we don’t know, and what we probably can’t know about the consequences.

Otherwise, we’re left with the budget slide, the loudest voices in the echo chamber, and an incomplete picture. Nashville deserves better.

Categories
Politics

The uphill climb for transit enthusiasts

Approximately five percent of workers in the United States take public transportation to work. In Austin it’s about three percent. In Nashville it’s less than two percent. Transit advocates are quick to point out that more people would use transit if the service was better–more frequent service, more sheltered stops, more efficient routes–and the research mostly backs that up. If you build it, they will come. The challenge, of course, is first you have to convince people to pay for building it.

In 2018, voters in Nashville opposed a $5.4 billion (or $9 billion with operating costs) transit plan by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. City officials in Austin are gearing up for another transit vote this November, with a price tag that is likely to exceed $10 billion, after a much smaller transit proposal–accompanied by millions in proposed road improvements of course, being Texas and all–failed in 2014 with only 43% of the vote.

So, what happened in Nashville? I covered a postmortem published by TransitCenter back in January, but, still, nobody from the core strategy team (or the opposition for that matter) with access to the polling data has really come forward yet with an earnest accounting for a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Many people have settled for some mild-mannered finger pointing at the Chamber, campaign, and former mayor. Most of what I’ve heard there is off-base, conjecture, or beside the point. Cooper’s team just wrapped up a series of public listening sessions to get input on the community’s transportation priorities. If there was ever a time for the serious people involved in the 2018 effort to come forward to help us understand everything we can about that experience, it’s now. I’m sure the folks in Austin would appreciate it too.

We can start to get a handle on a few things using Metro’s household survey. Some of it is surprising, given what we heard from supporters and detractors in 2017-2018; none of it inspires much confidence in future “go big” transit strategies in Nashville with massive price tags. That is, until we get comfortable with the idea of publicly discussing what we assumed to be true, why, and where we were right or wrong. Data will add considerable weight to that conversation.

Here’s what we know from the survey:

Transit is a top-five priority for Nashville residents. When asked to rank sixteen categories of city services, twelve percent of residents select public transportation as the top priority.

The other way to look at this is only twelve percent of residents think transit is the top priority, and asking people to raise taxes to cover an investment of $5.4 billion for #5 on that list is asking quite a lot. But no other service listed in the survey reaches even three percent after public transportation in first-priority votes.

The resident survey sample is now large enough to do some crosstabs, including race/ethnicity (white, black), household income (< $60,000, $100,000 or more), age (18-34, 35-54, 55 or older), location (USD or GSD), homeowners or renters, gender, and educational attainment (postsecondary degree or no postsecondary degree). We can also do breakouts looking at people who have taken the bus in the last year, commuted to work by bus (or by walking or biking), or have strong feelings about their access to transit or the quality of the system.

You can probably guess where this is going.

Public transportation fares a bit better as a first-priority service among white residents, higher income ($100,000+) households, young people (18-34), postsecondary degree holders, active transport commuters, and relatively new residents to the county. But the difference is slight, only by a few points and likely within the survey’s margin of error. It moves up to twenty percent or more in first-priority votes for people who are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their access to transit or the overall quality of the existing system, but still trails education.

Further, people who actually ride the bus rank it no higher in priority compared to everybody else. In fact, affordable housing and public education each get twice as many first-priority votes as transit does from people who actually ride the bus.

And then there’s this:

I don’t think that chart needs much in the way of commentary. But I can’t tell you how many times I heard people on both sides during the transit debate make persuasive sounding arguments about how people would vote on the plan based on ridership, real or perceived.

So, if none of the groups we can break out confidently in the sample see public transportation as their clear first-choice priority, who are these transit enthusiasts who make up the twelve percent that do?

This is where it gets tricky because it’s fewer than 200 respondents to the survey, which means we have to be careful about saying anything with confidence until there is a larger sample. That said, here is what results show so far about the enthusiasts in Nashville:

  • 75% live in the USD (close to total population share, 72%)
  • 75% are homeowners (likely over-represented in sample)
  • 85% hold postsecondary degrees (ditto, but interesting)
  • 80% are white
  • 41% are high-income ($100,000 or more)
  • 52% are age 18-34
  • 26% have taken the bus in the last year

Let me repeat that last one, with the caveat of needing a larger sample before getting too sanctimonious about it: Of the twelve percent of residents–the transit enthusiasts–who think public transportation should be Metro’s highest priority, only about one out of four are actually riding the bus. Nearly the same rate for all respondents.

Not exactly a compelling track record for convincing an undecided voter–37% of residents are neutral or don’t know when asked about the quality of transit in Nashville today–that if you build it, they will come, even given the limitations of the current system.

Two-to-one was a painful result and an expensive lesson. As Cooper’s team looks ahead to whatever new plan they have in mind, we should be talking openly about what happened in 2018–a conversation that should be led by serious people with first-hand experience and data. We should also share as much of that wisdom as we can with Austin and other cities contemplating a transit referendum. Hopefully that’s already happening and I just don’t know about it.

If not, we are missing an opportunity to learn something we can apply to our next shot at transit in Nashville.

Categories
Politics

Nashville: Are Metro meeting attendees representative of the community?

It is said that decisions are made by those who show up. Let’s hope that Metro policy makers are looking beyond the sign-up sheets at public meetings for community input on their decisions.

There’s a growing body of literature on the shortcomings of public meetings in both process and representativeness. See, for example:

Public meetings are broken. Here’s how to fix them.

Who Is the “Public” at Public Meetings?

In Nashville, we have self-reported data on residents who say they have attended a public meeting about Metro business in the last year. Luckily for us, we fare quite a bit better than some of the communities in those articles in terms of race/ethnicity diversity at Metro meetings. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they attended a meeting about Metro business in the last year. Sixty percent of those meeting attendees were white, which is a bit lower than the white share of the total population (65%).* Black residents were 30% of meeting attendees compared to 26% of the total population in Nashville. Metro meeting attendance was also generally representative of Asian and Hispanic residents.

While Metro gets relatively high marks for representative participation (or at least attendance) in terms of race/ethnicity, we need to improve public engagement in other areas. The most dramatic contrasts are in housing tenure and educational attainment, but several aspects of the survey results stand out to me based on my analysis of the data.

  • There is a thirty-point difference in the share of Metro meeting attendees with a bachelor’s degree or higher and the bachelor’s-plus share of the total population. In fact, a remarkable 35% of self-reported attendees had graduate degrees.
  • Unsurprisingly, homeowners are disproportionately represented at meetings about Metro business, 74% compared to 54% in the total population. Renters are 46% of Nashville’s population but are outnumbered three-to-one at Metro meetings.
  • Residents attending meetings about Metro business generally have higher incomes, but the gaps are not as large as I would have guessed given the differences in educational attainment. Thirty-seven percent of attendees at Metro meetings reported household income of $100,000 or more, compared to 27% for the total population. Middle-income brackets are within a few points of each other. Lower-income Nashvillians are, as you might guess, underrepresented at meetings. Residents reporting $30,000 or less in household income account for about one in ten attendees at Metro meetings, according to the survey results, compared to nearly one in four in the total population.
  • As you might expect from reading the literature or attending Metro meetings yourself, attendees do tend to skew older, but, again, the differences can be surprising depending on how you define the age cohorts. Younger people (age 18-34) are 38% of the total population in Nashville and 33% of meeting attendees, according to the survey results–underrepresented but not by as much as I would have guessed. Similarly, if you define “older” as age 55-plus, which I’m increasingly seeing in the literature and in materials from advocacy groups, then older residents are 31% of Metro meeting attendees and 30% of the total population, which is much closer than I would have guessed.
  • Studies mentioned in the articles linked above have found that men are disproportionately represented at public meetings and that is also true in Nashville. Fifty-three percent of respondents who have attended a meeting about Metro business in the last year self-identify as male, compared to 48% in the population.
  • Given the location of most Metro meetings, it also makes sense that attendees who live in the urban services district (USD) are slightly over-represented, 76% compared to 72% overall.
  • Finally, I don’t have a comparable statistic for this for the total population, but people reporting attendance at Metro meetings have lived in Davidson County for an average of 32 years. We can’t say for sure why newer residents are not participating in Metro business at higher rates, but I’ve personally witnessed their perspective being diminished as somehow less valuable compared to that of longer-term residents here in the land of “Nashville Nice” and in other places I’ve lived–and that’s not just me projecting.

Of course, attending a public meeting is not the only way to participate in local decisions. Forty-one percent of Nashville residents contacted a Metro elected official in the last year, according to the survey results. About one-half of those people also attended a meeting about Metro business. While I don’t have access to comparable data for other cities, 49% percent of respondents contacting a Metro elected official and/or attending a Metro meeting in the last year seems encouraging to me, even if it was just one call or one meeting. Knowing where we stand today is at least a starting point.

Demographics of people calling or emailing Metro officials appear to be very similar to those of people attending Metro meetings–67% were bachelor’s-plus in educational attainment, for example–so I don’t think we can say conclusively that meeting attendees are any less diverse than engaged people not attending meetings (although the survey sample is not large enough to parse results by presence of young children in the household, which can make attending evening meetings really tough).

I plan on doing a series of these posts because (1) it’s important people understand that what you hear in the echo chamber of city hall may not reflect the broader viewpoints of the community; and (2) I can’t locate the resident survey page on Mayor Cooper’s website so I assume it was taken down along with the rest of the material from Mayor Briley’s and Mayor Barry’s tenures; and (3) the survey results on Metro’s open data portal haven’t been updated since May 9, 2019; and (4) I’m concerned that means the survey won’t be continued.

Hopefully demonstrating how to use this data and why it’s useful for residents and policy makers will change their mind.

After all, I hear that performance management is en vogue again.

* Metro’s resident survey is administered to only the adult population age 18 or older. Unless otherwise noted population statistics reported here are also for age 18 or older.

Categories
Politics

MLS: Austin 2 Nashville 0

For anybody who has ever complained about how difficult it is to build things in Austin or argued about how much easier it would be to “get big things done” if the city had a strong-mayor form of government, check the headlines this week about MLS:

Quite the contrast in two cities that are frequently compared to each another. Compare the two deals and I think most people would agree that Austin came out ahead there, too.

So, make that Austin 2, Nashville 0 in this first leg. Although, I’d give Nashville the edge on their kit. I still can’t get past the logo and color scheme reminding me of cedar season.

Categories
Politics

Postmortem on Nashville’s failed transit referendum

There is a new report out this week from TransitCenter on Nashville’s failed transit referendum in 2018. Steve Cavendish at the Nashville Scene previewed some of the same themes in a story he wrote soon after the vote, but this new report goes into much more detail.

It’s a solid case study and holds important lessons for Austin and other cities. I started working for Mayor Barry in January 2017 so obviously I can’t claim to be completely objective about the report’s observations and conclusions. Nor, as a regular user of public transportation, can I be completely dispassionate about the outcome of the vote here, or what I hope transit proponents and local officials in other cities will learn from it. It’s been more than six months since I left the mayor’s office and I’m still not sure how to talk about my experience there without running into the risk of it coming across as sour grapes when it comes to things we didn’t accomplish.

But given the probability of Austin voting on something similar in the not-too-distant future I feel compelled to weigh in on a few things.

As a case study, the report stops short of what you would expect from a more academic treatment in a few key areas–I would have enjoyed a more thorough discussion of how a November vote with higher turnout could have affected the outcome or what the author gleaned from exit polls (assuming access was granted)–but those are very minor quibbles and don’t detract from its value as a case study.

To be clear, while I was a senior staff member, I was not on the core planning team for transit, as it’s referred to in the report. So, what I’ve taken away from the experience reflects only the views of somebody not “in the room” for much of the decision-making process.

That said, Austin, here’s my advice as you look ahead to your next election:

Think carefully about how you apply lessons learned from earlier votes. Your postmortem of a past result or campaign might have been right on target–at the time. If you can’t set aside your biases, or, worse, refuse to recognize the fact that you could have any–and we are all guilty of it–then make sure you have people in the room who have different biases.

Welcome users of the current transit system into the decision-making circle but don’t assume that all users will be supporters. If there’s one place in the report that starts to veer into a blind spot this is it in my opinion. Get on the bus and ask a few people if they’d rather be in a car driving alone to work, even if it meant sitting in soul-crushing traffic.

Get kids involved–and not just as campaign props. Empower them to help make decisions. Yes, many will be too young to vote, but that trope is less relevant in today’s media landscape, where teenagers can command the attention of world leaders. Transit may not be as jarring as gun violence in schools; however, it is about safety. It may not lead to the cover of Time, but it is about climate change.

I’m not sure how you get there but I think it’s pretty clear by now what happens when people hear the word tax and feel that they are being asked for $5 billion or more when nothing vital is at stake.

At least not for them.