Rate hike likely in the near future
The Wilson County Budget Committee Thursday night deferred a motion by the Education Committee that asked them to consider a property tax increase to cover a major shortfall in their original $54.8 million schools building and expansion plan.
The Budget Committee rather voted to recommend a public forum to explain the need for a potential tax increase and also asked the Wilson County Board of Education to come back with "other options" to proceed with a building plan without a tax increase.
Director of Wilson County Schools Dr. Donna Wright said the revelation of the $21 million shortfall had caused "much heartburn" and she "didn't have a crystal ball." She said eight months ago the $54.8 million was "the best estimate we had." She mentioned sister counties' similar struggles with rising building costs.
Wright told the Education Committee the school system's updated building plan is "what is needed."
"It's not glitter and gloss," she said. "We need our students to have equitable opportunities, no matter if they go to school in West Wilson or at Tuckers Crossroads."
Education committee votes to recommend 5-cent increase
Prior to the Budget Committee's deferral to consider a property tax increase, the Education Committee in a 5-2 vote (District 5's Jerry McFarland and District 4's Chad Barnard voting no) recommended the 5 cent property tax increase to help cover the $21 million overage of the original $54.8 million bond slated to construct, expand and renovate four elementary and K-8 schools.
School Board Chair Larry Tomlinson spoke for the School Board.
"There are four of us (School Board members) here tonight," he said. "We've brought you a program recommendation and something we need. You've always funded what we need."
He noted schools expansion was their priority, but the expansion project included a Wilson County Schools central office project budget that would convert the old Lebanon High School into a single building to house a new Central Office and adult education center. Wright offered two plans related to that renovation expenditure, with an entire LHS renovation at $5.9 million and a sheared off version at $1.7 - with much less renovation.
"Schools are the priority," Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson said he knew it wasn't easy to vote for a tax increase "but sometimes you've got to do it."
The last property tax increase to fund schools was 3 cents when the county built Watertown High.
Why were projections so far off?
Many commissioners were befuddled by the drastic increase in projections versus the actual bids.
McFarland said unpredicted budget requests for schools expansion at 5 to 7 percent may be "normal, but this is like 50 percent," he said.
He asked Wright if she would be "willing to delay" building a new Mt. Juliet Elementary School. Wright told him they need "relief" from crowding at three West Wilson elementary schools. And when pressed on delaying other school projects, she answered a stern "no."
It was District 8 County Commissioner Frank Bush who mentioned the idea that the school system consider revamping their expansion plans to try to complete the most pressing projects with the $54.8 million already given.
"Can you review your bids?" he asked. "Ask if they could squeeze the profit margin for the students?"
Wright said she referred to that process of stripping down the bids as "Motel 6 construction" in her post-graduate classes she teaches on school construction, and although it may be "cheap, but we pay for it later."
Wilson Central example of 'Motel 6' construction
District 20 Education Committee member Annette Stafford referred to that result happening now at Wilson Central High School.
During the Budget Committee meeting, Bush again suggested cutting out $5 million allocated toward future technology in the system and more funds renovating the old LHS property on Harding Drive.
"That's two moves," he said. "That's $15 million off that $21 million overage. I would think you could find other ways to cut it down... an alternative plan to get it down without a tax increase. It's the least we owe to tax payers to present a non-tax increase plan."
Budget Committee member Mike Justice noted it was not the County Commission's job to provide alternatives, but to ask for alternative plans from the School Board or Education Committee. Eventually, it was Justice who made the motion to defer, hold a public forum on a possible tax increase and to ask the schools to reconsider the costs of their plan.
It passed the Budget Committee unanimously.
547 new students from one year ago
Joines earlier in the night said his fellow commissioners are hung up on the why rather than solutions. "At the end of the day, we have to ask are we going to build schools or not."
Tomlinson indicated if the tax increase was not granted by the County Commission, they "would carry on."
"Tomorrow we will still be in the school business," he said. "But, every child is important no matter where they live. We are not going to single out certain schools (to make cuts)."
Wright echoed his comments after the meeting. "We are not going to choose one school over another. The school board members do not want to back up on this.
"The (enrollment) numbers are not going to slow down.
"We have 547 new students this year compared to the same time last year. That's a new school building right there."
When some committee members suggested holding off on some of the projects, they were reminded, "costs go up," as time goes by.
"Waiting definitely affects the cost," Wright said. "The uncertainty affects the subcontractors and their availability. The longer we delay the more difficult it becomes to forecast."
Five-cent raise may not be enough
District 11 County Commissioner John Gentry said he'd be "willing to raise the property tax 5 cents." But many other commissioners expressed concern that 5 cents would not be enough when factoring in all the growth the county needs to consider.
Finance Director Aaron Maynard said he didn't think a 5-cent tax increase would be sufficient to "operate" and pay staff at the new schools.
Maynard said trying to build several new schools, as well as fund the renovations projects, was "unrealistic."
Bush countered and asked if his opinion was "premature."
"You brought us a problem and should come back with solutions, two or three alternatives."
'Classrooms are the priority'
When asked the priority, Wright emphatically said the classrooms were most important. "We (central office staff) have been at Stumpy Lane for years, and can make it work," when asked if removing the old LHS property could be taken out of the project.
However she noted that the scaled-down project at the former LHS would have a trickle-down effect on the proposed Adult Education program and Election Commission storage at the former high school, as well as moving the high school students from MAP Academy into the Stumpy Lane building, separating them from the middle school students.
Building only the first part of the total cost
Stafford noted trimming the LHS renovation from $5 million to $1.7 million was one alternative.
After the meeting, McFarland said the county has other needs as well as schools needs. He noted the landfill is always costly and the county has to find a way to hire six employees for the Statesville Fire Station, among other needs.
In a brief review of the cost of land contracts for a new middle school site in Gladeville, new high school site on North Greenhill Road and new elementary and middle school sites by Jackson Hills Subdivision near the current MJHS, costs total $8,287,525. The new Gladeville Middle School site totals $1,035,000; Mt. Juliet High site $4,175,000, plus $1.7 million for road work; and new elementary and middle school $1,377,525. Wright did mention they are negotiating with Mt. Juliet 2.8 acres for a new Mt. Juliet fire station near the North Greenhill land site.
"It's not firm yet, we are negotiating," she said.
Funding to purchase land for future schools is not part of the $54.8 million expansion project.
Budget Committee votes to fund new voting equipment
In other Budget Committee business, members voted to fund in the next fiscal budget new voting machines for $497,733, financed over five years with zero percent interest. The total purchase price for new machines is $995,465, however the state will pay $350,000 in grant funds for the machines.
The Wilson County Election Commission requested the funds to replace current voting machines with new Certified Voting Machines that will "be compliant with the 2005 EAC Certified Standards."
The current voting machines are 10 years old and new technology is reported to sustain the county as least 10 more years, according to the WCEC. Wilson County Election Adminstrator Phillip Warren said implementing the new machines in 2016 will allow them to save the taxpayers over $180,000.
Retirement package considered
The Budget Committee also agreed to review information from the State of Tennessee related to school employees' retirement plan options. Mike Garland and two other state representatives said the optional plan is a partnership with the State of Tennessee at no cost to the county. The plan would be optional.
"It would be an added benefit to the employees," he said.
Maynard said he "liked" the plan because it "takes the responsibility off of us."
State representatives for the 457 and 401K said they would get all the details to the county as soon as possible.
Writer Laurie Everett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.