Source: Williamson Herald
Author: Kerri Bartlett • Managing Editor

After months of community debate, the possibility of a countywide referendum for a sales tax increase took another step forward to becoming a reality on the ballot box during a special election in February.

However, as the proposed sales tax increase referendum builds momentum, the Williamson County Budget Committee was reminded Monday of the reality that funding the burden of county growth does not stop with schools but also lies in improving roads.

Following Williamson County Planning and Zoning Director Mike Matteson’s presentation on the “Williamson County Comprehensive Traffic Strategy” report, the budget committee unanimously approved a resolution that would call a referendum to raise the county’s and surrounding cities’ sales tax from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent.

“We’ve looked at a multitude of different ways to pay for these schools,” Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson told the audience at a recent Breakfast with the Mayors event last week, when he asked the public to consider a sales tax increase.

“These schools don’t come cheap.”

The revenue from the increase would go toward funding school debt incurred by the construction of new school buildings. The catalyst for the sales tax proposal is the rapid student population growth Williamson County Schools is experiencing, welcoming about 2,000 new students a year with a projection of 57,000 students in 10 years. WCS Director of Schools Mike Looney has prepared the commission for the need for over a dozen more schools in 10 years.

The revenue gained from the proposed .5 percent sales tax increase would be dedicated to school debt for three years, or to capital bonds already obtained for new school buildings. After that time, cities would be able to dedicate the revenue to the city budgets as they see fit.

The proposed sales tax increase was also approved by the County Commission Education Committee.  The next stop is the full 24-member county commission, which will cast the final vote to decide the fate of the proposed referendum Nov. 13.

Growth affects roads too

According to Matteson’s traffic report, the county is not out of the woods yet in funding the vast growth in Williamson County, which also puts a strain on schools and roads.

“Williamson County is experiencing a staggering amount of growth,” Matteson said.

The traffic report was compiled by consulting firm TischlerBise, hired by the county.

“Citizens and county officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact that increased traffic is having, or will have in the future, on the quality of life of area residents,” the Comprehensive Traffic Strategy report said.

Matteson said the unincorporated county roads are experiencing increased traffic volumes and congestion as a result of the growth taking place, regionally and in the unincorporated county.

Matteson reported that Williamson County’s population is projected to reach 500,000, or double its current population, by 2040, according to the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s population forecasts.

Since 2000, Williamson County’s population has increased by 70 percent, making it the fastest growing county in Tennessee. Williamson County led the nation with the fastest growing job market in the U.S. in 2016, and the housing market continues to boom.

The growth the report states is mostly occurring in the cities, though county roads are affected because about half of its drivers are from surrounding areas.

Funding needed

The bottom line is that more funding to improve road congestion is needed. According to the report, it would take $378 million to make the road improvements needed in the unincorporated county, and a funding gap exists of $371.7 million.

“There is currently no ongoing, dedicated source of revenue within the county to fund the type of magnitude or roadway improvements that are needed,” Matteson said.

The report suggested five funding mechanisms such as a 9-cent property tax increase, (or approximately a $93 annual increase on a home priced at $400,000 near the county average).

Other funding suggestions included a $90 per dwelling countywide Transportation Utility Fee; an unincorporated county property tax increase of 41 cents (or $410 annual increase to a $400,000 home); an unincorporated county property tax increase of 16 cents (or $165 annual increase on a $400,000 home) combined with a one-time road impact fee of $3,300 per each new dwelling and an Unincorporated County Transportation Utility Fee of $745 per dwelling on an annual basis, which would fund the entire $371 million shortfall. However, the last option would require a change to state law as a transportation utility fee is not currently legal.

The report also suggested strategies to address the traffic congestion, including updating the county’s Land Use Plan, implementing policy changes regarding land use and zoning.

After the presentation, some budget committee commissioners expressed that they did not support the funding suggestions although they approved the findings of the report by a unanimous vote.

“I have cosponsored this resolution, but that does not mean that I am for any of these funding strategies that have been identified,” budget committee member Todd Kaestner, 9th District, said.

Kaestner called the funding mechanisms “math problems,” but emphasized the importance of land use policies.

Commissioner Kathy Danner, 4th District, who does not serve on the budget committee, suggested downzoning properties to aid in decreasing growth and thus congestion on roads.

Commissioner Barbara Sturgeon, 8th District, who was in attendance, said she is concerned about the financial burden falling to those in the unincorporated areas, which seems to have the least growth and the least amount of cars to roads.

“That blows me away the fact that it is put forth as an option, implies that it’s reasonable to simply lay the burden of roads to unincorporated citizens,” Sturgeon said. “They are already disturbed enough that growth is not being controlled … I am shocked that is even considered an option.”

“It was great to start examining the tools, but some are politically impossible,” Kaestner said.

“We have a long way to go here,” he added, regarding discussion and funding strategies.