The past year has been a fiscal nightmare for Nashville. Covid-19 helped punch a $332 million hole in the city’s $2.46 billion budget. Tennessee state comptroller Justin Wilson warned that, without drastic action, the state might take over management of Nashville’s affairs. In response, the city council raised property taxes 34 percent, spurring a citizen revolt in the form of a ballot initiative to overturn the tax hike. Without the extra revenue, however, Mayor John Cooper’s administration said that drastic cuts would be unavoidable: “Few corners of the Metro government, including emergency services and schools, would be spared significant reductions or eliminations.”
Nashville’s budget woes predate the pandemic: the city began borrowing money to cover deficits after the Great Recession of 2008–09. City leaders, at the same time, went into heavy debt to build new government-owned attractions, offered workers health retirement benefits that they haven’t funded, and deep-sixed pension reforms that saved the state billions of dollars. In fact, back in December 2019, the state comptroller issued a similar warning to Nashville about its shaky finances.
The Music City isn’t alone. The Covid health emergency and accompanying economic downturn caused budget crises for municipalities—cities, counties, and school districts—across America. A February letter from 400 mayors to President Biden said that the pandemic-inflicted strain on municipal budgets had “resulted in budget cuts, service reductions, and job losses” throughout local government. America’s largest city, New York, grappled with a nearly $10 billion budget deficit in the spring of 2020, while Chicago struggled with a $2 billion gap. Dozens of local governments used the crisis to justify budget maneuvers that fiscal experts generally frown upon, from borrowing money to close deficits to issuing bonds to fund employee pensions.
TCRS made $13.6 billion in fiscal 2021; a record high in earnings that put the balance of TCRS’ investments at $65.3 billion. In fiscal 2020, the system had a 4.94% return and finished the fiscal year with a balance of $53.4 billion. The Tennessee Department of Treasury said that return outearned its peers by four times the median 1.2% return during the fiscal year.
“When retirement plans around the nation are under scrutiny for their performance, TCRS is thriving,” Tennessee Treasurer David Lillard said. “Our Governor and General Assembly ensure the plan is fully funded every year. The Tennessee Department of Treasury strives to be good stewards of the state’s financial resources. This $13.6 billion in investment income is evidence of our commitment to both active and retired members of the TCRS pension plan.”
Like many cities, Nashville is also in hock to pensioners, with $4.3 billion in unfunded promises for retiree healthcare. And though Nashville’s pension system is well-funded, it is also expensive to maintain because employees contribute almost nothing, leaving taxpayers on the hook for about $110 million in annual contributions—and potentially more when investments tank. Despite the burden, the city resisted adopting reforms the state enacted in 2013, when Tennessee switched to a pension plan that requires employees to contribute 5% of their wages.
Nashville’s balance sheet wasn’t in any shape to endure a massive pandemic hit. Led by a 50% decline in tourism, the city’s economy slumped last spring, and unemployment soared above 15%. That punched a $332 million hole in the fiscal 2021 budget, prompting then-Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson to warn in September of a state takeover. The city could become “kind of like a teenager coming to their parent asking for $20 to go to the movies,” he said.
The U.S. vaccine campaign has heightened tensions between rural and urban America, where from Oregon to Tennessee to upstate New York complaints are surfacing of a real — or perceived — inequity in vaccine allocation.
In some cases, recriminations over how scarce vaccines are distributed have taken on partisan tones, with rural Republican lawmakers in Democrat-led states complaining of “picking winners and losers,” and urbanites traveling hours to rural GOP-leaning communities to score COVID-19 shots when there are none in their city.
In Oregon, state GOP lawmakers walked out of a Legislative session last week over the Democratic governor’s vaccine plans, citing rural vaccine distribution among their concerns. In upstate New York, public health officials in rural counties have complained of disparities in vaccine allocation and in North Carolina, rural lawmakers say too many doses were going to mass vaccine centers in big cities.
Nashville recently was named a “Bottom 5 Sinkhole City” by the nonpartisan think tank Truth in Accounting (TIA) in its fifth annual Financial State of the Cities report.
TIA examined the fiscal health of the 75 most-populous U.S. cities and graded and ranked the cities accordingly. The 2021 report is based on fiscal year 2019 comprehensive annual financial reports.
“At the end of the fiscal year 2019, 62 cities did not have enough money to pay all their bills,” the report’s executive summary read. “This means that to balance the budget, elected officials did not include the true costs of the government in their budget calculations and have pushed costs onto future taxpayers.”