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District 4 county commissioners discuss proposed property tax increase with citizens

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Williamson County Commissioners Chad Story and Gregg Lawrence, 4th District, stepped out of the office Thursday morning to speak with constituents over breakfast about a proposed property tax increase of 11 cents that will come to a vote at the Williamson County Commission meeting in July.

Nine citizens joined the commissioners in a corner of First Watch restaurant in Cool Springs at 7 a.m. to ask questions and learn how these proposed funds would be spent. The commissioners explained the entirety of the tax increase would be dropped into the general purpose school fund to raise Williamson County Schools (WCS) teachers’ wages, particularly those within their first few years of teaching.

“Our pay scales are actually more geared towards the folks who have been here 10, 15, 20 years," Story said. "So, once you are here for a long term, pay actually normalizes a little bit.” 

Lawrence added that, because of this weighted scale, WCS has trouble with new hires since their starting wages are low compared to surrounding districts.

Though teachers will receive a 3 percent raise across the board (from state and local funds), the proposed additional funding will go towards raising teachers’ base pay to $40,500, approximately a $3,000 increase, according to WCS Interim Superintendent Jason Golden, who has addressed the issue during recent community talks.

Lawrence explained this bump includes all teachers within their first three years.

“If a teacher has been there for three years, and the person that comes in new is starting to make more money than they are, that’s not a good situation, so we had to adjust some of the other pay for some of the other teachers as well,” Lawrence said.

The county commission's budget and education committees previously approved the WCS operational budget request of just over $353.8 million, which included the boost in teachers’ pay, but the property tax increase would provide the necessary funding for the budget.

How will increase affect landowners?

This is good news for teachers, but what would this tax increase mean for landowners?

An 11-cent property tax increase would raise the rate from $2.15 to $2.26 per $100 of assessed value. Assessed value is calculated by multiplying the appraised value of a property by the assessment ratio, 25 percent for residential and farm properties.

For example, if a home is valued at $100,000, the assessed value would be 25 percent of that number, or $25,000. If property tax becomes $2.26 per $100 of assessed value, that equals 2.26 percent — $565 in tax for a $100,000 home as opposed to $537.50 under the current tax rate.

While this specific increase would solely benefit schools, not all the property tax money is pooled into the WCS budget. Different portions of the collection are split between several different funds, including sanitation, general debt service, rural debt service and highway public works, though, some say, the latter has been getting the short end of the stick.

Lawrence explained that about 75 percent of the budget (including debt service) has gone towards school salaries and operations, through the general purpose school fund, and school buildings, through the general debt service fund for high schools and the rural debt service fund for K-8, but the school budget has also been dipping into the highway fund.

“We’ve actually been robbing the highway fund to pay for schools for the last two years, so that’s not a good situation to be in,” Lawrence said.

“It was an election year last year, and I’ll just be honest — that’s the reason for it. That’s why we didn’t have a tax increase; we moved money around. We moved pennies around from the highway fund, but if any of you have been out on the roads, you know we need to upgrade some roads around here. We just don’t have the money.”

The morning conversation then delved deeper into the high cost of capital needs in WCS, including the construction of new school buildings and theaters, for example, which are projects not included in the WCS operational budget. 

In 2018, the constituents of Williamson County approved, by referendum, a sales tax increase of .5 percent, which is being used to fund school capital debt for the next three years. 

Meeting attendee Norman Bobo, Tennessee state director for research and education at Citizens for Self-Governance, raised a concern, explaining that he believes WCS is overspending on new classrooms and the allotted cost per student.

“I’m all for schools," Bobo said. "I’m all for paying teachers. I’m all for educating your kids. What I’m not for is waste, and I’m afraid that what we’ve got here is a waste.”

Former member of the Williamson County Board of Education Tim McLaughlin explained that the high price tags of new buildings aren’t just classrooms but all the other special accommodations needed for schools, like stadiums, theaters and gymnasiums, that raise the overall cost.

Lawrence also said the county isn’t getting as much funding from the state as other counties, through its Basic Education Plan, or BEP formula used to distribute funds to school districts, thus placing heavy pressure on the budget, especially considering WCS’s high standards.

“We do pay for some things that the state doesn’t mandate, like we’ve got an SRO (school resource officer) … in every school,” Lawrence said. “There’s not a county in Tennessee, I don’t think, that does that, that I know of. And we’ve got a nurse in every school. Nurses are expensive.”

Despite the $30 million added to the state’s school safety fund by Gov. Bill Lee to place SROs in every K-12 school, Story said this money is not prioritized to Williamson County because officers were already present at each school.

“When you look at Shelby and Davidson and Williamson, when you get outside of our counties, it’s a lot of rural areas," Story said. "So, a lot of the rural areas look at counties like ours and say, ‘Well, you can afford to do x.'

“We want to make sure the rest of the state is covered and has resources and things like that, but so often, there seems to be waves of, ‘Well, you can handle this.’”

Another constituent in attendance, Kathy Webber, had less of an issue with the amount of money and more of an issue with how the money is labeled.

Story explained that, when new schools are built, any new roads, lanes or road improvements required to get to that school falls on the shoulders of the school, which is partially why the county has been dedicating pennies from the highway fund to schools. Lawrence said this leaves little money left for other new county roadway projects.

“We have almost no money. We have about $14 million in the highway fund, and $9 million of that goes just to fill in the potholes every year, so we’ve got almost no money to really do anything to the roads other than to maintain what we’ve got,” Lawrence said.

Webber said she thinks roads should be regarded with greater importance than this.

“When (the schools) come in with their budget, and they say they have this much, then they’ve got to figure out how they’re going to do all that," she said. “We shouldn’t have to go and take our road money for my residential living to put it all to the front of that school.”

Lawrence said the county is looking into other fees that will cover these costs and fix the labeling issue but is trying to avoid repeating the lawsuit that arose over the education impact fee, which led the Home Builders Association of Middle Tennessee to sue the county. However, a Williamson County court ruled in favor of the county to uphold the fee.

Constituent says increase should not affect low income seniors 

On another note, this potential tax increase brought retired citizen Hank Rotter to the meeting to advocate for low-income households. He proposed that, as taxes increase, the statutory maximum income to qualify for the senior tax freeze program should also rise proportionally.

According to the Tax Freeze Act of 2007, Tennesseans 65 and older, who fall below an annually set income, may qualify to lock in their property tax rate, exempting them from tax fluctuations. Rotter’s proposal would allow more seniors to qualify for the program as taxes increase.

He explained he will happily pay taxes to support the county’s schools, but he doesn’t want seniors who fall just above the low-income line to be unfairly charged.

“I want to make sure that the burden isn’t shifted disproportionately to the retired, the working poor and to the senior citizens in this county,” Rotter said.

The Williamson County Commission will vote on the proposed budget, including the 11 cents property tax increase, at its next meeting Monday, July 8, at 9 a.m.

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