The Williamson County Commission vote concerning the county’s looming property tax increase took a surprising turn Monday morning as the members approved a 7-cent increase — 4 cents lower than originally anticipated.
While the meeting’s agenda proposed a tax increase of 11 cents — a number echoed through weeks of government meetings — to go towards the Williamson County Schools (WCS) operational budget, the County Commission Budget Committee called a special session during a recess, wherein the committee passed along an amendment to the full commission that would reduce the proposed tax increase by 4 cents.
This adjustment responds to an unexpected additional $1.7 million from the state allotted to the schools as growth money. WCS Superintendent Jason Golden explained that the schools’ Chief Financial Officer Leslie Holman anticipated about $2.5 million in state funds still to come this year but was surprised when the number came back as $4.2 million.
Additionally, the WCS fund balance at the end of the year turned out to be higher than expected, so some of the money will go towards next year’s budget.
The rollover, combined with the unexpected $1.7 million dollars from the state (as well as a marginal increase in the value of the penny), means the budget requirements for the general purpose school fund can be met with a 7-cent property tax increase rather than the originally proposed 11-cent increase.
The question then remained: what should be done about those extra 4 cents?
Commission debates over amending the tax increase
The room split on the idea of decreasing the 11-cent tax hike, sparking a debate over the best solution.
Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson reminded the members it is their duty, not the duty of the school board, to set the property tax rate. He encouraged the commission to amend the proposed increase and save property owners those extra 4 cents, even if it results in a tax increase next year.
“It’s extra money,” Anderson said. “You probably won’t have it next year. There’s no guarantee they won’t come to you for a tax increase next year. There’s no guarantee any one year of what can happen.
“(They have) plenty to operate a school and not hurt. … I would bring it down to the four pennies, which will not hurt their budget one bit.”
Some commissioners were sympathetic to Anderson’s proposal, including Matt Williams (District 9), who worried that any extra money brought in would be unnecessarily used up rather than saved to prevent or cushion a potential tax increase down the road. He preferred the option to shave off the extra cents and save taxpayers some money.
“I like the idea of having a little bit of a cushion,” Williams said. “I think the risk that we run is operational budgets can bloat.
“Our responsibility is to make sure we’re being fiscally responsible with the money. So, I don’t want to have an operational bloat to a budget that creates some excess.”
Golden provided some comfort to this worry, explaining that the schools can only use what is approved in the budget, and any additional needs must go through both the Williamson County Board of Education and the county commission. Because of this, any excess money brought in by the tax increase would not be immediately available to the schools.
Commissioner Chad Story (District 4) reasoned that reducing the proposed increase only postpones another tax hike and that going with the expected 11-cent increase could save taxpayers the hassle of experiencing another upsurge in the next couple of years.
Further discussion led to a motion to split the difference, which would decrease the proposal by 2 cents, but the room voted 12-12 and, in the end, approved the full 4-cent reduction, voting 21-3 to amend and 23-1 as amended.
How will this increase affect property owners?
Following the vote, the property tax rate for the county is now $2.22 per $100 of assessed value.
Assessed value is determined by multiplying the appraised value by the assessment ratio, which is currently 25% for residential and farm properties. So, for property valued at $100,000, the assessed value would be $25,000.
Owners will be taxed 2.22% (or $2.22 for every $100) of that value, which would be $555 for a $100,000 home compared to $537.50 under the former rate of 2.15.
Where is the money going?
All the money collected through the 7-cent increase will go into the WCS operational budget, which will fund a bump in teacher pay. Golden said this will affect teachers from zero to 12 years of experience, making WCS rates competitive with schools in other counties to help draw in more teachers.
“When your neighbor pays a little bit better for something fresh out of college, that’s where the attraction is,” Golden said.
Commissioner Gregg Lawrence (District 4) further explained that WCS rates are competitive and even better than surrounding areas as teachers gain more and more experience, especially if they have families and receive the full health benefits the schools offer, but for single teachers fresh out of college, the county’s wages are low. The salary adjustments allowed by the tax increase provides single, fresh-out-of-college teachers with a livable wage.
Apart from the property tax increase, the commission also approved the WCS operational budget of $386,248,331 for the upcoming year, which allows for about 64 new teachers, an anticipated 1,048 new students, and guidance counselors to be placed in elementary schools (part of the WCS seven-year strategic plan), among other provisions.
Additionally, the commission approved the WCS capital budget of $10 million, slashed by about $3 million from the original proposal.
Commissioner Robbie Beal (District 10), who is part of the commission’s education committee, explained that the original proposed budget of just over $13 million provided for equipment upgrades and other actions that were not immediately pressing, so the committee brought the number down to save some costs.
“As a commission, we have bitten off so much in expenses for the school this year,” he said. “We were hoping to try to shave down to absolute necessity what was necessary to the schools.
“I don’t think the school is overreaching in their requests right there. They’re not trying to grab cash that’s not there, but again, because of the funding issues that we’ve done, as a committee, we thought that this was a justifiable shaving of their requests.”
Skipping the month of August, the Williamson County Commission will convene again on Monday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. in the Williamson County Administrative Complex.