County commission passes new, WCAR-opposed educational impact fee rates

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The Williamson County Commission passed new rates for the controversial educational impact fee at its regularly scheduled meeting Monday night, but not without plenty of discussion. 

With a 40-plus-page agenda, the most contentious item was a detailed outline of a budgeting reassessment by TischlerBise, a Maryland-based company contracted to put together a report on the household demographics and student data throughout the county to determine the rate of the educational impact fee. 

The fee was implemented in March of 2017 to assist the county in paying for the increased capital needs of the Williamson County School District brought by new residential developments. The fee is to be reassessed every three years, so this new report proposes a fee rate according to current data, to be implemented in March of 2020. 

The commission heard from an unusual number of citizen speakers concerning this proposed fee increase. 

First up, Kathy Danner, a real estate agent and former county commissioner, expressed her approval of the educational impact fee. 

“The two main reasons people move here are low property taxes and schools, and this financial tool supports both,” she said. “Please know that, just because an organization doesn’t support it, not all Realtors agree with that stance.” 

She said the fee is not sustainable but that it was never designed to be — that is, it was not supposed to wholly fund impact from growth — but that it fills the gaps left by the state’s Basic Education Program. 

Another former commissioner, Todd Kaestner, also supported the fee, arguing it raises value of all houses in the county and is more beneficial than a raise in taxes. 

“What other tax do you pay that you get to keep? In other words, what other tax do you pay as an individual that you get back?” he asked. “If I buy a new home here that costs an extra $10,000, I get that extra $10,000 back.” 

Citizen Victor Andrews worried the fee would discourage attainable housing in the county, but the commission explained one upside to the fee conditions is that nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing attainable housing, such as Hard Bargain, are exempt from paying the fee. 

The commission also heard from representatives from the Williamson County Association of Realtors, an association largely against the fee. WCAR President-Elect Jordan Vaughn asked the commission to at least defer the vote to give more time for conversation about alternative options. 

“What we want is a conversation and collaboration on how to bring those revenues through a more broad-based fee and/or tax, a fee that is not directed at a select group of homeowners and that is revenue not brought in on the backs of infrastructure costs that are already at record high,” he said. 

Citizen David Logan argued builders are not creating growth, but rather the schools, jobs and opportunities are raising the county’s numbers. He also pointed out that the number of projected students has gone down. 

Carson Bise of TischlerBise confirmed this, but he said the lower number of projected students is not enough to bring the number of new schools down, and it is not enough to offset the raised land and construction costs that have inflated over the last three years. Thus, the fee rates have increased, not decreased. 

District 4 Commissioner Gregg Lawrence explained some form of county income is necessary to keep up with growth. He said he’s open to discussing a transfer fee instead of an educational impact fee, but, as of now, he does support the fee. 

District 9 Commissioner Matt Williams also said this fee is necessary. 

“It’s simple,” he said. “We have revenues, and we have debt. We’ve been a conservative county. We keep our property taxes low. We’re asking everybody to pay their share.” 

As there are $12.5 million in paid fees under protest due to a lawsuit by the Home Builders Association of Middle Tennessee questioning the legality of the fee, District 11 Commissioner Brian Beathard made a motion to defer the vote until the legal side is worked out. The appellate court will address the issue Nov. 5, but a final decision for or against the fee’s legality will not necessarily be made on that date. 

Deferring the vote several months, then, would push the commission outside the required three-year assessment deadline, so to comply with this requirement, District 11 Commissioner Sean Aiello motioned to defer the vote until after the Nov. 5 hearing to allow for further discussion and information, but only six commissioners voted for the deferral. 

With the deferral rejected, the resolution proposing the new rates passed 19-1. 

The TischlerBise report breaks the fee down into rates for kindergarten to eighth grade and high schools. New developments will be charged a one-time fee for both rates in the majority of the county, but developments within the Franklin Special School District are only responsible for the high-school portion, as the district feeds into WCS after eighth grade. 

The rates, charged per unit, are further broken down by square footage. Each new rate within the report is higher than the current rate by a margin of about $300 to $1,000, except for a $40 decrease for units under 1,400 square feet within the FSSD. 

Williamson County Planning and Zoning Director Mike Matteson also spoke to the commission about the public meetings held concerning the comprehensive land use plan, which is currently in the updating process. He explained development has spread across the county, rather than remaining concentrated within the urban growth boundaries, so the new plan needs to reflect a decision to continue this pattern or to focus future developments within the urban growth boundaries. 

Matteson reported the citizens who attended the related public meetings overwhelmingly supported the latter option. One of those supporting citizens, Laura Turner, spoke at the beginning of the meeting, urging the commission to keep developments from crowding the natural resources and rural character of the unincorporated land. 

The county will hold a workshop for the update of the comprehensive land use plan on Wednesday, Oct. 30 at the Williamson County Enrichment Center at 6 p.m. 

The county commission will meet for its next meeting at the Williamson County Administrative Complex on Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m.

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