First District Williamson County Commissioner Ricky Jones on Monday pulled a resolution to call a referendum to allow the citizens to vote on a proposed half-cent increase to the county's local option sales tax.Jones said, "I feel additional time would be in our best interest." Factors he said influencing his decision were the outcome of the county's reappraisal of property, which could lead to increased property tax collections without a tax increase; allowing County Mayor Rogers Anderson the chance to continue to meet with area cities to see if they would be willing to cede their portion of the tax collections to the county to pay down school debt; and to allow Williamson County Schools to have a budget in place to see how large a shortfall exists between funding and the proposed needs of the school system.
Williamson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney said while there was much rumor and innuendo -- "and much of it is inaccurate" -- about cuts which could be made if schools do not receive additional funding.
The county is not required to provide transportation and Looney said that could be one item that is cut. Under questioning by Commissioner Brandon Ryan, he said if the county was unable to fund the transportation system, it would begin selling off part of its fleet.
"Does that mean that you will give us back the $1 million we gave you for 11 new buses last month?" Commissioner Kathy Danner asked Looney.
"No," Looney said succinctly.
Jones did not put a timeframe on reintroduction of the resolution, instead saying he was pulling it for "later consideration."
The proposal had been recommended to the Commission by a 5-0 vote of the Tax Study Committee, with the Education Committee voting 6-1 in favor of the proposal while the Budget Committee was split, offering a 3-2 recommendation.
Williamson County currently has a 2.25 percent local option sales tax and state law allows a county to assess a maximum local option sales tax of 2.75 percent. According to the resolution, "The Williamson County Board of Commissioners has determined that new revenue is needed to account for increased costs of the educational system in Williamson County."
While Jones pulled the resolution, it didn't stop citizens from commenting at the meeting and imploring county commissioners to make further cuts in spending rather than seek additional taxes.
"The argument advanced by the proponents of the sales tax increase is that they must have more of our hard-earned money for our schools and our children. Yet while announcing their belief that our children are our most important assets, the proponents of this tax increase threaten to withhold children's benefits if we do not go along with a tax increase," said Kevin Kookogey, chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party, labeling it "base rhetoric," that "is immoral and irresponsible."
"And coming from the leaders of 'the most conservative-friendly county in America,' it is disappointing," Kookegey said.
He said form letters circulated by PTO presidents, "urging Williamson County parents to contact their commissioners and school board members ... would lead one to believe that there is no alternative to a sales tax increase."
The Williamson County Republican Party has called a town hall meeting for March 31, Kookegy said, so "commissioners will have the opportunity to explain their votes on tonight's resolution."
"Some of the proponents of the sales tax increase have sought cover by responding that since state law requires that a proposed sales tax increase be handled as a referendum, the people should decide. Yet what is conveniently omitted from the discussion is that it costs Williamson County taxpayers at least $100,000.00 just to send the matter to referendum," he said. We elected our commissioners to mind the store and to watch our money. Kicking the issue back to the taxpayers instead of making responsible cuts in spending is not leadership."
He suggested the superintendent and school board to ask parents for voluntary contributions to fund the school system, while at the same time pointing out a "significant increase in bankruptcies and foreclosures in Williamson County."
"Our community is not insulated from the problems of the nation. Asking the public to even consider the imposition of any new tax to cover for this Commission's lack of fiscal restraint shows a disregard for the public trust which has been conferred upon you by our votes," Kookegy said. "If this commission is unwilling to exercise its own internal checks and balances, the community will."
Under state law, the first half of the local option sales tax automatically goes to fund education, with the other half going to the municipality collecting it. County officials believe this increase could generate approximately $8 million annually from the portion dedicated to schools.
County Mayor Rogers Anderson and Looney are in discussions with the county's municipal governments to see if they would cede their portion or the sales tax -- another $8 million -- to the county for a specific period of time if it was used to pay off school debt or another fixed purpose.
If the County Commission votes by a simple majority in favor of the resolution, the Williamson County Election Commission must hold a referendum on the issue within 60 days of the date of the vote and then the tax would go into effect on the first day of the month occurring 30 or more days after the Election Commission certifies the results.
The city of Fairview has already raised its local option sales tax to 2.75 percent, so it would not be included in the additional collection.