A future property tax increase is the underlying topic a pollster, working for Mayor Karl Dean, tested in a recent phone survey that weighed the mood of Nashvillians on a range of Metro issues.
The survey covered a number of topics — a property tax increase, mass transit expansion, financing a new Nashville Sounds stadium and subsidizing the Nashville Predators — that are on Dean’s radar in the early months of his second mayoral term.
Dean’s campaign committee funded the survey, the mayor’s former campaign manager confirmed. The poll’s line of questions offers insight into several of Dean’s looming policy decisions — perhaps answering how to politically frame and defend a tax hike.
A woman conducting the survey stated she was calling on behalf of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, according to a Davidson County resident who on Friday, Jan. 6, participated in the poll. Audio obtained by The City Paper confirmed the exchange.
Hart Research Associates — a Washington, D.C., survey research firm — has a client base that consists of several high-ranking Democratic congress members, governors and mayors. Frederick Yang, a partner of the firm’s Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, worked as Dean’s pollster during the mayor’s 2011 re-election campaign.
Courtney Wheeler, who worked as Dean’s re-election campaign manager in 2011, confirmed the survey came from Dean’s campaign committee. She said the poll was conducted last week. Wheeler recently began a new job with President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
Karl Dean for Mayor, the name of Dean’s campaign committee, isn’t required to disclose its most recent round of spending to the Davidson County Election Commission until Jan. 25.
Dean’s press secretary Bonna Johnson said the mayor’s office is not connected to the survey.
The City Paper obtained audio of a phone survey that began with broad questions on the performance of Dean and the Metro Council, the quality of public schools and mass transit, the state of Nashville’s economy and possible local government cuts. The pollster asked for the voting frequency of the respondent and whether he or she is a member of the media.
Fifteen minutes into the survey, questions took a sharper focus, particularly on the possibility of a property tax increase. Metro’s last property tax increase came in 2005. Many observers believe Dean’s administration will have to increase Metro’s current $4.13 property tax rate to keep the city financially afloat.
“Would you favor or oppose raising the current property tax rate of $4.13 by 50 cents in order to raise revenue to maintain core programs and services?” the pollster asked.
This particular respondent did not offer support. (Raising Metro’s property tax rate by 50 cents would not be a large enough spike to trigger a public referendum on the matter.)
The pollster then tested the mood of raising the local option sales tax by one-half percent in addition to a 25-cent property tax hike. Again, the participant didn’t offer support.
“If it turns out that the revenue from these tax increases would be used to fund new capital improvement projects such as repairs and maintenance of roads, streets and bridges, would you be much more likely, somewhat more likely or less likely to support it, or would it not make a difference?” the pollster asked.
Questions then turned to other uses for additional property tax revenue, including the relocation of PSC Metals, the metals scrap yard on the east bank of the Cumberland River, long perceived as an eyesore. The site is one of three locations recommended for a new Nashville Sounds stadium.
“If it [a property tax increase] turned out to be used to provide funding to support regional economic development initiatives such as relocating the metals scrap yard on the east bank of the river next to LP Field,” the pollster asked, “would you be more likely to support it, less likely or would it not make a difference?”
The survey pivoted toward Dean’s goal of doubling the number of Nashville’s college graduates within five years and whether the respondent would support a property tax hike to fund a college graduation program.
“What if it were used to fund a five-year program to double the number of Metro Nashville students who complete college?” the pollster asked.
Still on the issue of a property tax hike, the pollster asked about using additional revenue to “fully fund” Metro Nashville Public Schools: “Would you be much more, somewhat more or [would it] make no difference?”
The survey asked the respondent to rate the following statements as “strong, medium or weak reasons” to raise property taxes:
• “Despite budgetary problems caused by the severe economic recession, Nashville has fully funded the budget for Metro schools for the past four years while other departments have received cuts. Due to the continuing economic downturn, Metro government still faces revenue shortfalls, despite strong fiscal management. And the bottom line is that without any new revenues from a tax increase, funding for Metro schools will need to be severely cut, which will lead to fewer teachers and larger class sizes.
• “Nashville needs new revenue to invest in public schools, police, fire and infrastructure such as roads and mass transit. Raising taxes may not be popular, but after years of cuts that have threatened Nashville’s continued progress, raising new tax revenue now would be an investment in the future and keep Nashville on track for continued growth and success.
• “For the past four years, Metro government has been able to avoid drastic budget cuts to schools, police, fire and other core services without raising taxes by cutting other parts of the government and restructuring the city’s debt. But with virtually no growth in revenue due to the national recession, Metro government cannot avoid making significant cuts to core services unless in can find new revenue.”
The pollster asked the respondent to rate whether he or she values the following persons’ or organization’s views “a lot, somewhat, a little or not at all.”
In order, she named: Dean, the Tea Party, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the individual’s Metro Council representative, and police officers and firefighters.
The pollster asked the participant whether the Nashville Sounds minor league baseball team “contributes to Nashville’s economy” before asking, “Would you favor or oppose using tax revenue to help pay for some of the costs of building a new Sounds stadium?”
The survey then turned to the Nashville Predators, inquiring to what degree the respondent felt the hockey team contributes to Nashville’s economy. Metro provides an annual $7.8 million subsidy to the Predators franchise.
“Would you favor or oppose continuing to use city funds to help subsidize the operating costs of the Nashville Predators?”
The pollster changed the topic to government employee pensions and benefits, calling them “a major factor in Nashville’s projected budget shortfall.”
“Would you favor or oppose a reform proposal that would require all new Metro government employees to contribute more to their health care costs and receive lower pensions and benefits?” the pollster asked.
Capping off the survey was a question regarding bus rapid transit, which Dean has proposed for a corridor stretching from West End to Broadway and across the river to East Nashville.
“Would you favor or oppose a proposal to expand transportation options in Nashville by instituting bus rapid transit?”
The survey references possible funding mechanisms for mass transit expansion, asking whether the participant would favor revenue from a gas tax, a wheel tax, sales tax, emission fees or property tax to support mass transit.