Mt. Juliet will not be getting any forgiveness for the debt it owes the Wilson County School Board, which voted 3-2 Monday (Nov. 10) against lowering the city's $449,000 alcohol tax debt by $200,000.
The city asked for a $200,000 offset based on its past waivers of building fees for school construction inside the city's planning areas. The offset request was an offer to settle a lawsuit against the City of Mt. Juliet which the county filed last June on the School Board's behalf.
After cities and counties all across Tennessee failed to pay their required shares of liquor-by-the-drink (LBD) taxes to their local school districts, local officials across the state struggled with how they could pay the sometimes large debts.
According to Mt. Juliet city officials responding to the lawsuit in June, a state law passed to resolve the LBD debt dilemma allows but does not require local school boards to offset some or all of cities' debts to them, based on local cities' expenditures to benefit the school systems.
However, School Board Chairman and Zone 5 Board Member Larry Tomlinson, who voted against waiving part of Mt. Juliet's debt, said Tuesday morning, "I don't know that we have the right to waive that. I asked the board attorney, and he said he didn't think that we could."
Decision's fairness disputed
Board Attorney Mike Jennings could not be reached to comment on Tomlinson's description of his advice.
However, Zone 1 Board Member Wayne McNeese, who voted in favor of the waiver, said he feels the board's decision is unfair.
"I think Mt. Juliet is being penalized for being a good citizen back when we built Mt. Juliet High School and Mt. Juliet Elementary," McNeese said. "I was disappointed in the board's action."
Figures provided by Mt. Juliet City Manager Kenny Martin's office show that the city waived $397,275 in fees for the school system. Neither Lebanon nor Watertown have waived the fees for school building projects in their communities.
Martin's office also noted that the City of Mt. Juliet spent $3.7 million for road construction on Golden Bear Parkway, even though the new Mt. Juliet High School, which is located on the parkway, is outside city limits.
On the other hand, Lebanon City Council agreed last summer to approve an agreement with the School Board to pay the city's past-due share of its LBD tax in 10 equal payments of $81,121.52 for a total of $811,215.25.
Future impact foreseen
Nevertheless, McNeese said Tuesday morning that he expects the board's decision not to waive any part of Mt. Juliet's LBD tax debt may have a chilling effect in future financial negotiations with Mt. Juliet.
"If it was me, I'd double the fees," he said. "They are certainly not going to waive any more."
In that regard, McNeese and Tomlinson agree. "I wouldn't expect them to waive any more fees," Tomlinson also said.
The board's 3-2 vote followed an executive session at the end of the board's regular open session Monday night. McNeese and Zone 3 Board Member Don Weathers voted to accept the waiver, while Tomlinson, Zone 2 Board Member Bill Robinson and Zone 4 Board Member Linda Armistead voted against the waiver request.
So now, that's how the matter stands until the Mt. Juliet City Commission considers the board's response, Tomlinson said. "We've turned it down, but if somebody comes back and tells us that we have to do different," he added, "then we'll do that."
Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.