Maury County stays in limbo with a possible tax hike on the horizon

Less than a year after residents in Maury County voted to approve a sales tax increase, Maury County Public Schools shuttered a historic elementary school and is now struggling to secure funding to build more schools.

Because of continued high growth in schools and aging school buildings, the Maury County Commission is now considering a 7.23% property tax increase in order to pay for the mounting needs in MCPS, including new schools, renovations and even funding for daily operations.

Commissioners are set to discuss and vote on the proposed increase during a budget committee meeting on July 12 before it reaches the full commission.

MORE:Superintendent proposes tax referendum for school

Amid the school district’s budget crisis, the school board eliminated multiple programs and extra teaching positions from its recent 2021-22 budget proposal. During another blow, the county commission failed to pass the school board’s $85 million capital budget request last month that would fund a new high school in Spring Hill and renovations across the district. The school board will revisit the budget request before the commission’s final meeting of the fiscal year. 

MORE:Maury County votes down school board’s $85 million building plan

A countywide referendum to increase the sales tax from $2.25 to $2.75 passed in 2020, and was supported by former Superintendent Chris Marczak, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, Columbia Mayor Chaz Molder and Maury County Alliance President Will Evans as a way to support the needs of the school district with minimal impact on residents in Maury County.

MORE:School board chair supports tax referendum in Maury County

MORE:Local opinion: Why Maury Alliance supports sales-tax referendum

Hesitations took hold following referendum 

Just days after being voted in, skepticism about the sales tax increase began to take hold with members of the public.

Many in the community, including county leaders, were concerned that members of the public were unaware that the increase would also be distributed to local municipalities.

“People are still confused,” said Commissioner Debbie Turner, following a July commission meeting. “The taxpayers, they did not fair well in this. That is what bothers me. I think it is totally ridiculous. I just think we have a lot of issues here and with $300 million that is staring us in the face. This budget is not addressing any of that very much at all.”

During a past commission meeting, Turner said that the tax increase was not properly communicated to both members of the commission and residents of the county. 

“I do feel the people did not understand what the people are voting for,” Turner said. “We did not do a good job of communicating that.It won’t be remembered as something good and fair, honest and ethical. I am telling you, it is wrong, and all I can tell you is I hope it was not purposely misleading.”

MORE:How to say goodbye: McDowell student who led integration in Maury County returns to closing campus

McDowell closure incites frustration

About six months following the referendum’s passing, a blow came to local educators, students and parents as the school board moved forward with a plan to close McDowell Elementary School.

A previous $18 million plan to completely rebuild the more than 120-year-old school was scrapped. Local leaders had previously stated that the sales tax increase would help salvage McDowell.

The decision to close the beloved school was met with opposition by many members of the community who had voiced their support for the referendum. 

Among those was Molder, who attended the campus as a young pupil and whose own children also attended. 

At the time, Molder argued that the proposal to close McDowell would foster public distrust and resentment in Maury County’s leadership. He rallied parents in an effort to recall the newly implemented sales tax increase until a solution could be found. Though the recall was never adopted by the commission.

SALES TAX:Maury County sales tax exceeds expectations despite COVID-19

TAX INCREASE:Maury budget committee revises proposed tax increase, approves school budgets

“I would have advocated for the sales tax referendum even if McDowell were not a part of it,” Molder said. “I am extremely disappointed in the way the sales tax issue came down. We were told that is would lead to a renovated McDowell Elementary School, Spring Hill high school and a Mt. Pleasant elementary school. A lot of people in the community feel like we were lied to.”

Later, Mt. Pleasant, contributed its portion of the sales tax increase to the public school system, while the city followed suit. Molder said the city council decided to do so following the resolution’s passing because the contribution was not planned from the start.

“To come in after the fact that was just a lack a vision of the Director of Schools at the time,” Molder said.

Williamson County citizens passed a similar referendum in 2017, increasing its sales tax by the same amount. County Mayor Rogers Anderson drafted a memorandum of understanding before the referendum, stating that all of the county’s cities would designate its share of the increase to school debt for the first three years. After that, cities would be able to keep the share.

A community misled

Michael Fulbright, school board chairman, said the situation set-up members of the community for disappointment. 

“The way the sales tax referendum came about, I don’t think enough people really did the research to see that it wasn’t tied to one or two individual schools,” Fulbright said. “It was tied to capital debt across the county. The spilt between the cities and the schools – it has been a point of contention because a lot of people did not know that either.”

Maury County Public Schools Board of Education Chairman Michael Fulbright leads a special-called meeting at Horace O. Porter School in Columbia, Tenn., Monday, June 28, 2021

Scott Sumners, budget committee chairman, said the resolution for the sales tax increase addresses school debt but never stated a specific school. 

“The tax referendum was pitched as an idea to pay for new schools, but we thought we should use that for existing and future debt,” Sumners said. “If you look at the resolution it does not mention any specific schools. The commission wanted it to be very general in that it would go to school debt. Right now, we have plenty of debt that we would have to pay for.”

FUNDS NEEDED:Maury County Public Schools facilities will require more than $300 million in coming decades

Property tax increase ‘inappropriate’

Diane Bolton, who is part of three generations of McDowell Elementary School, described the current situation as “infuriating.”

“Many of us were told by people who are officials within the city of Columbia that this referendum would go toward McDowell,” Bolton said. “I convinced friends to vote in favor of it for that reason. Then, they failed us.”

She said the proposed property tax increase only fuels the McDowell community’s frustrations.

“I think it is inappropriate that property owners are flipping the bills in a poorly managed budget,” Bolton said. “It it is a slap in the face to every property owner who has spent a lifetime here.”

Jackson Carter, the chairman of the Young Republicans of Maury County and a recent graduate of Spring Hill High School spoke in opposition to the plan during a June county commission meeting. He argued that it would be more cost-effective for the school district to acquire land for a new elementary school rather than wait several years to build a new high school.

A tricycle rests inside the gymnasium at McDowell Elementary School in Columbia, Tenn., on Thursday, May 20, 2021.

Schools still struggle with funding

As Columbia and greater Maury County continue to see a period of expansive growth, the school board’s ability to garner enough funds to build new schools hangs in the balance. Plus, the district falls in the bottom 5% in academic performance in the state.

The district must find funds to eventually pay for a $85 million capital plan to build a new high school on Spring Hill’s Battle Creek campus and transform Spring Hill High School into an elementary school campus as well as make improvements to facilities across the district.

However, the county commission failed to approve the capital plan earlier this month. 

“The only thing that can hold down the city of Columba is for the school system not to change course in how it is performing,” Molder said. “I am always going to fight for increased funding for our school system. I think it is time we quit hiding behind the curtain on this. We are not operating on the level that that we would expect to see. We should not be in the bottom 5% of anything.”

Commission introduces plan to increase property taxes 

If approved by the full commission, the property tax increase would cost the owner of a $200,000 home $82 in annual property taxes.

The commission moved to lessen the property tax increase proposal by dropping the increase to 7.23% from the previously proposed 15% increase, which was approved by the budget committee in early June.

MORE:Maury County votes down school board’s $85 million building plan

The property tax increase would be used to fund debt on new building projects in the school district, while the sales tax revenue would go toward funding old capital projects.

Doug Lukonen, the county’s finance director, said Maury County currently has a debt balance of $158 million with $152 million from school projects, representing 96.46% county’s total debt.

The school debt includes funds to build Columbia Central High School, Battle Creek Middle and Elementary Schools, an expansion at Marvin Wright Elementary School and a new HVAC system at Santa Fe Unit School.

Lukonen said the sales tax is estimated to generate an estimated $5 million in revenue each year but will not be enough to cover the old debts as well as the list of that of new projects.

“The sales tax is paying for projects that are already done and it is not going to generate enough money to cover all that new debt,” Lukonen said.

With property values growing everyday, Lukonen added that a potential third scenario would be to carry out a countywide property reappraisal as a way to increase property value and revenue without increasing the tax rate.

Daniel Marez attends the closing celebration of McDowell Elementary School in Columbia, Tenn., on Friday, May 22, 2021.

An opportunity for change 

Columbia native Debbie Matthews, who criticizes the property tax proposal, says the issue is part of a much larger roadblock that is holding Maury County and its municipalities back.

She said finding a way to implement impact fees for new developments, including roads and new construction, could be a solution to school funding rather than increasing property taxes.

Debbie Matthews, a Columbia realtor who once served on the Columbia City Council, opposes the proposed property tax increase. She believes that other solutions, such as building impact fees could be implemented.

Matthews, a local realtor who spent seven years on the Columbia City Council also mourned the loss of the McDowell campus. Saving McDowell was one of the reasons she voted for the increase initially.

She said the current school funding issue could be resolved at the state level if the county and all local municipalities pushed to lift a state moratorium on impact fees placed on the county.

Impact fees are stipends imposed by local government on new or proposed development projects to pay for all or a portion of the costs of the public services in a new development.

“The county is between a rock and a hard place,” Matthews said. “There is growth. There needs to be revenue. We can’t keep doing businesses this way. Property taxes are never going to fund the schools. That is not what we need in an especially high growth area like Spring Hill.”

Matthews said while impact fees for building a new home in Maury County cost about $2,000, a similarly-sized project in Williamson County would cost about $15,000 because the local government took authority, by a private act, to enforce an educational impact fee onto builders.

“We are not granted the same funding source as Williamson County,” Matthews said. “The county should be put on the same footing, and we are being denied that. I do not think that is equal representation under the law. Funding the schools is a county issue that keeps coming up. We have to make a path.”

Matthews said the introduction of higher impact fees would be the best opportunity to free the local government from the current cycle of funding woes.

“Growth needs to pay for growth,” she said.

Matthews said that at this moment, the school system is the county’s weakest link.

“The thing that hurts Maury County most is the education system,” Matthews said. “The first thing that people consider when moving here is the condition of the school system. That makes or breaks us right there. We have to compete. It is time for Maury County to take a stand on this.”

An uncertain road ahead 

Now, the local school board and county commission continue to move forward with a budget deadline fast approaching and a decision to make about whether to implement a property tax increase. .

“I am a taxpayer,” Fulbright said. “I don’t want our property taxes to go up, but I also don’t want to see children sitting in overcrowded classrooms not able to learn — not having the supplies — and struggling to keep up with other students across the state.” 

Fulbright said he believes there are greater needs than what the sales tax can address and that is why new borrowing has been proposed by the county commission.

“We could not just rely on the sales tax to make that happen. Whether it takes a property tax or something else to fund it that is up to our funding body to decide,” he said.

Reach Mike Christen at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @MikeChristenCDH.