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New law limits borrowing power

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Concerns about school-building ability
The new Lebanon High School would not have been built without a major tax hike, if a law recently passed by the Tennessee legislature had been in force at the time, according to County Finance Officer Aaron Maynard.

The effect of the law was a topic of serious concern at Monday night's (Oct. 20) Wilson County Commission meeting, since it requires "level debt payments" for all funds that Tennessee counties borrow, Maynard told the commissioners.

"Level debt payments" mean that loan payments by the county would have to include as big a payment on the debt as on the interest, beginning with the very first payment.

While that may not sound like a bad idea, it means the county could not borrow money for new projects until all older debts were completely paid off without raising property taxes, Maynard added.

'Not so bad?'
When District 8 Commissioner Frank Bush asked what percent of the county's current debts are being paid in level payments, Maynard said about 70 percent are.

But when Bush said, "Then maybe this isn't so bad. It's just saying all counties should follow the same policy we do," Maynard pointed out that it really could be a big problem if new schools are needed.

Often, when the county needs to build a new school or add onto one, for example, there is still enough outstanding debt that the budget won't allow large payments for a few years.

"We pay the interest and a small payment on the debt each year for four or five years until some of the other debt has rolled over, and then we can make larger payments," Maynard said. "It means we can't structure our debt as we think best."

He also said that with the county growing so fast, it's important to be able to structure the county's debt so its total debt service stays level, not so that equal amounts are paid on principal and interest from day one.

Double A-plus rating required
Under the new law, the state comptroller's office would have to approve any arrangements that didn't include level payments for any counties that don't have a double A-plus credit rating, Maynard said.

When the commissioners asked what the county would have to do to get such a rating, he admitted that he isn't sure.

"I like bright lines. They tell you exactly what you have to do, but there doesn't appear to be one in this case," Maynard said.

He explained that Wilson County does have a double A rating without the plus, so it's close. "We're the seventh highest in the state, but I don't know for sure what else we need to do," he added.

Maynard said he thought it might help if the county had a larger fund balance, saying that Sumner County actually sold its hospital to increase its fund balance, and Sumner is the only county in the state that he is sure has the double A-plus rating.

Legislative letter requested
Mayor Randall Hutto said he's very concerned about this law because "we have spent a lot of time working on plans to be able to build needed schools without a tax increase."

In the end, District 14 Commissioner Jeff Joines asked Maynard to draft a letter, with help from County Attorney Mike Jennings, to the Tennessee House of Representatives and Senate, telling them exactly how the law is going to affect Wilson County and its citizens.

District 19 Commissioner William Glover asked that Maynard not only write the letter, but that he bring it back to the commission to be signed by every member as well as the mayor.

The commission approved Maynard's report and agreed that he should write the letter and present it at the next County Commission meeting.

WEMA trains for Ebola
Emergency Management Director Joey Cooper reported that his department is doing well and has answered 12,292 calls so far this year. Then he told the commissioners that Wilson Emergency Management Agency (WEMA) intends to be "very proactive about the Ebola threat."

Cooper said WEMA will be doing a health training about the disease on Friday, and then start offering classes which will continue through Nov. 7 at WEMA offices.

He encouraged the commissioners to sign up to attend at least one of the classes. "Things are changing so fast with this situation that we need to stay informed," he said.

Commissioners challenged to become mentors
Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright also brought a challenge to the commissioners to become mentors for TNAchieves.

All of the seniors in all four county high schools have signed up for TNAchieves, Wright began by explaining. Even those who are planning to attend a four-year college are considering accepting the program's offer of two years free at community college, she said.

"We've had the best response in the state," she added. "But we've had the worst response for mentors. That's why I'm here. I want to challenge every one of you to sign up as a mentor."

Wright explained the mentoring only takes about 15 to 19 hours in a year. Two short trainings are required, and the rest can be handled on the phone, online, in person, or by text messaging, she added.

Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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