Williamson Co. $435M budget would boost education, emergency response spending

Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 10:05pm
070513 Nolensville volunteer fire department topper.jpg

Nolensville Volunteer Fire Department (Eric England/SouthComm)

 

The Williamson County budget committee has submitted a nearly $435 million proposal for the county commission to approve, with an emphasis on education and public safety spending for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

The large budget reflects Williamson County’s growth over the past decade, with the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations listing its 11.5 percent growth rate as the fastest in the state.

Demonstrating the rapid expansion at a public roundtable discussion, budget chair Ernie Williams told the audience that in 1987, when county Mayor Rogers Anderson first joined the commission, Williamson County’s budget was a mere $40 million.

The county’s swelling population accounts for the committee’s ability to recommend estimated increases in revenue without a tax increase to foot the multimillion-dollar bill.

Williams said the group is projecting that increases in the population and the housing market will positively affect the county’s revenue, but it will be up to the county commission to vote on the proposal and officially set a tax rate.

Schools are the biggest expense for Williamson County, with the general education fund expected to eat up $260 million of the total budget.

The budget committee voted to shift one cent from the county’s $2.31 tax rate from the general fund and put it toward education; the move is expected to generate $800,000 for public schools.

Nearly half of the education funds, or more than $125 million, will be used to pay the salaries of teachers and other school faculty, said County Commissioner Doug Langston. There are no new schools proposed in this year’s budget, but many commissioners are planning ahead for a new high school in the Nolensville community and a new elementary school in the Spring Hill area.

The land has already been bought in Nolensville, Anderson said.

“We all realize we’re going to have to go to market and borrow money to build another high school,” Anderson said, “and that will probably come about in the September county commission meeting — no later than October.”

But as school spending expands, so does the county’s debt service.

“We’ve got about a half-billion dollars, 500 million dollars worth of debt,” Anderson said.

“If you’re going to build school buildings at $40 million to $45 million for high school, $30 million to $35 million for middle — elementaries are $25 million the way we build them — we’re going to have to borrow money. We wish we could pay cash for it. That’s impossible.”

Total expenditures in the county’s general fund, set at approximately $76 million, are expected to decline, but salaries are expected to increase by nearly $3 million due to personnel additions.

“Thirty-two of those were the [security resource] officers that were put in all the schools in the county,” Williams said. “When that tragedy happened up in New England, we made the decision to put an officer in every school.”

Safety for Williamson County residents was a high priority for committee members, citing the May 2010 flood as a lesson in the consequences of having inadequate public safety systems in place, including within the police and fire departments.

“One of the things we do not have … in our rural areas, where so many of our residents do live,” Anderson said, “is a paid fire department.”

Anderson said the county has engaged an architect to build a new public safety building for residents living outside municipalities and not covered by city-provided services. The frequently commuted state Route 840 has played a crucial role in making these public safety changes a priority.

With most of the route lying outside Williamson County’s incorporated towns, responders to car accidents on the busy thoroughfare are often just volunteers.

“We have a lot of activity on 840,” Anderson said. “For some reason, people like to travel that corridor and not go through Nashville when they’re carrying their illegal substances, so we’re beginning to see some activity out there.”

The sheriff’s office will hire three additional people specifically to patrol the route, Anderson said.

The Brentwood Police Department will also contribute officers to the Williamson County Sheriff’s SWAT team in the upcoming year, Sheriff Jeff Long said. When activated, the joint team will be under Long’s authority.

Funding for the sheriff’s office comes from within the county’s general fund, but the budget proposal contains a special function area specifically for the office’s drug control forces. The drug control fund is expecting expenses to rise to $90,000 in 2014, without any estimated increases in revenue. But budget director Nena Graham said that area of spending is often self-sufficient, with income collected from fines and forfeitures.

The proposed budget estimates there will be declines in sanitation and highway works revenues, despite a predicted uptick in sanitation spending.

With the Tennessee Department of Transportation responsible for all but 700 miles of Williamson County roads, highway spending is also expected to drop.

The budget committee voted Monday to switch revenue rates from the county’s privilege tax between highway works and fire protection, resulting in the drop in highway profits but another increase for public safety spending.

Other amendments to the proposal were made at the monthly budget committee meeting, including the addition of federal funding and other donations not originally included in the proposal.

The committee chose to table a $5,500 proposal to include an educational insert in property tax bills that explains the county’s expenditures to citizens.

Commissioner Brandon Ryan, who proposed the insert, called it a “simple, educational piece for the county taxpayers.”

But members of the budget committee expressed concern that the simplified overview was confusing and would generate more questions than answers for the community.

Proponents said those questions would be a positive outcome that would result in better transparency.

“As an elected official, I’m happy to take those phone calls,” Commissioner Kathy Danner said.

Budget chair Ernie Williams said he felt the “snapshot” concept did not accurately reflect the state of the county, and if the commission wanted to educate the public, they needed to use all of the facts, or let citizens find the answers themselves.

“If they want to dig, they can do that,” Williams said. The committee chose not to vote on the proposal.

The Williamson County Commission is expected to vote on the committee’s recommendations and finalize the budget on Monday, July 8.