The Center Square [By Vivian Jones]-
Republican leadership in the Tennessee House has asked the state comptroller to conduct a “thorough review” of Nashville’s management of $131 million in state and federal COVID-19 relief funding.
In response to Nashville’s lagging economic recovery and anticipating additional requests for state aid from the state’s budget next year, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and 10 other House Republicans sent Comptroller Justin Wilson a letter Friday, asking him to review the city’s use of federal relief funds.
“In Tennessee, we do let locals do what they need to do, but we’re not here to write a blank check and go into a partnership blind,” Sexton said in an interview with The Center Square. “So we are asking the comptroller to give us some thorough review of where their spending has been.”
Sexton called out Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s restrictive economic policies that have prevented many businesses from fully reopening after mandatory pandemic-related shutdowns.
“When he’s saying that business is what keeps this economy thriving and growing, and they need businesses to be open, it calls into question why he shut down Nashville for as long as he has, and why it’s the worst performing city in America right now, and why it’s the worst performing county in our state right now,” Sexton said.
The letter noted that of the more than 19,000 local governments in the country, only 36 municipalities were provided direct federal COVID-19 relief. Sexton said Cooper’s request for additional funding from the state earlier this month raised questions about how the city used the significant funding it already received.
“They had $121 million coming from the federal government, we gave them 10 additional million – so that’s $130 million. They said they needed another $82 million from the state. And then on top of that, they’re raising taxes about 34%, potentially,” Sexton said.
Gov. Bill Lee denied the city’s request for an additional $82 million in state funding last week.
In response to House leadership’s request, Cooper’s office said Nashville is ready for the comptroller’s review.
“We welcome the comptroller’s audit,” Chris Song, a spokesperson from Cooper’s office told The Center Square, praising the work of Metro’s COVID-19 Financial Oversight Committee.
“Nashville’s direct CARES Act allocation has been spent directly on our COVID-19 emergency response and responsibly allocated to address the greatest need in our community, helping struggling Nashvillians keep food on their tables and roofs over their families’ heads, providing our residents with job placement assistance, and supporting our small businesses during the sharpest and most sudden recession in our lifetimes,” Song said.
Cooper outlined how the city has spent the federal funds in his letter requesting additional funds from the state earlier this month. According to Cooper, the city has spent $51.3 million on mass COVID-19 testing operations in the city, labor costs and hazard pay for more than 3,000 critical infrastructure employees and personal protective equipment.
Additionally, the city spent $24 million on technology for schools to implement distance learning, including laptops for every teacher and students in grades 3 through 12, internet access for 17,000 students and personal protective equipment. The city provided $10 million in rent, mortgage and utility assistance, $2.5 million toward food security and $500,000 on an assessment of “the needs of communities of color that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.”
House Democrats said the Republicans’ request to the comptroller amounts to “persecution,” and Nashville’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been appropriate.
“Instead of starting a witch hunt into non-existent issues, Governor Lee and other Republicans should be coming to the table to create ways to help get this virus under control and get everyone back to work permanently,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said in a statement.
Sexton explained the comptroller’s review of Nasvhille’s COVID-19 spending will help lawmakers make informed decisions in light of likely future funding requests from the state.
“The mismanagement in Nashville didn’t happen overnight,” Sexton said, noting financial problems Cooper inherited. “Just the other day, now they’re starting to talk about actually go in and make cuts to the budget, but that wasn’t their first response. Their first response was for the state to bail them out and to raise taxes. That’s not a good philosophy for anywhere inside the state of Tennessee.”