Governor Bill Lee responded in writing Thursday denying Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s request for an additional $82.6 million in coronavirus relief funding.
In addition to the letter, Lee addressed the issue during a press conference Thursday, saying “I have to believe the strategy that I’m investing in is one that is consistent and aligned with the state’s strategy and Nashville’s are not.”
One of Lee’s strategies has been to avoid raising taxes in a time of crisis.
At the same time, Cooper put forward a budget that included a 32 percent property tax increase to cover his year-over-year budget increase of $115 for fiscal year 2020-2021 while simultaneously estimating a revenue shortfall of $280.6 million
Lee went on to put some perspective on what it would mean if he gave Nashville the additional funding.
“Providing funding for Nashville additionally, beyond the billions of dollars they currently have, means taking away from the funding from those other 94 counties.”
As the governor pointed out, Nashville was one of only three local governments in the state to receive payments directly from the federal government.
Nashville-Davidson metropolitan government received over $121 million, according to U.S. Department of Treasury documentation, while Memphis city received $114 million and Shelby County received $50 million in addition to the state’s $2.4 billion.
Lee also reiterated the approach that the state has made with regard to the COVID-19 recovery.
“We made a commitment early on to try to lift restrictions as soon as possible in a way that we thought would not compromise our approach to health and mitigation of the virus. We have to get our economy moving forward.”
While 1,000 business leaders surveyed by University of Tennessee Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research expected that the state’s economy to be better than that of the national economy over the next 12 months, Nashville is not recovering nearly as well.
“Metro Nashville is the least rapidly recovering economy of all metro regions in the United States as of right now,” Lee said.
After a pause to let that point sink in, he added, “That means, in my view, our strategy in that particular place from an economic standpoint is not an effective one.”
In his written response to Cooper, Lee points out that “the Metro-Nashville area has benefitted from $2.5 billion of the $13 billion in Tennessee’s COVID-19 related response funds.”
At $3,745 per resident, Nashville ranks as the highest per capita relief of any other of Tennessee’s 95 counties by nearly $1,000 per capita of the second-highest Williamson County.
Meanwhile, and in sharp contrast, Bledsoe County received the lowest amount at $594 per capita.
Lee expressed to Cooper his “deep concern” that only $5.7 million of the $93 million in coronavirus relief funding spent by the Cooper administration went toward business relief.
“This concern is heightened by the ongoing challenges ahead for Nashville business owners who have already endured some of the most restrictive limitations on commercial activity, as well as a recently enacted property tax increase.”
Lee went so far as to ask Cooper to reprioritize the relief fund budget by allocating the “full remainder” of the unbudgeted $27.3 million toward economic relief for businesses, which would match the state’s investment of $26 million in small business relief payments to Nashville businesses.
While Lee has left most decisions regarding issues such as masks and business restrictions to the local authority, in his letter he leaned heavily on Cooper about the handling of businesses reopening.
“I would also strongly encourage you to consider and weigh the impact that locally imposed restrictions will have on the prospects for Nashville’s future.”
The governor’s position comes along with the bombshell revelations accusing the Cooper administration of suppressing COVID-19 data in order to keep downtown bars closed.
Lee was questioned during the press conference about Nashville’s selective release of data in order to keep businesses closed.
He responded by focusing on the need to get Nashville’s economy moving forward.
“We need to be less restrictive on businesses,” said Lee, particularly those where they haven’t seen a correlation to COVID-19 cases.
In Lee’s letter to Cooper, he took two pages to detail a “non-exhaustive list” of state and federal support for Metro-Nashville including $377 million for health and social safety net services, $1.4 billion in economic relief for employers and $224 million in payments to government entities within Davidson County.
Lee then went on to ask several questions of Cooper related to how funds were spent, if the budgeted amounts were duplicative across state and federal relief funds, covered under other relief programs and if the expenses are in compliance with federal guidance.
Lee told Cooper he agreed that “Nashville’s pace of recovery is influential to Tennessee’s economic recovery” that he would appreciate Cooper’s partnership toward achieving that shared goal.
In the press conference, Lee said he expects that he and Cooper will continue to talk about what they think is the best strategy going forward.
Lee’s Thursday press conference can be viewed here.
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