by Ira Weiss and Don Barnett
As you travel about Williamson County you can’t help but notice the construction sites everywhere. Maybe it is time to take a closer look before you wake up one morning to find you no longer live in the suburbs or exurbs, but live in an environment that looks more like a city replete with tall buildings, massive traffic – including commuter rail and heavy bus and truck traffic, and other urban necessities.
What is driving the higher growth in Williamson County?
In 2012, the Williamson County Commission contracted with the Williamson Chamber of Commerce – which also calls itself Williamson Inc. – to promote growth. The result has been growth on steroids.
In fact, the Chamber is contractually obligated to secure a minimum of 25 corporate relocation and expansion projects for the current fiscal year alone. As part of its mandate it must achieve a level of job growth in Williamson County that is at least 25% higher than that of the national county average. And all of this deal-making is happening in private with almost no input from county residents.
For its efforts to promote hyper growth the Chamber has received nearly 1.5 million dollars over the past 5 years from Williamson County taxpayers.
To make sure it has the political support it needs the Chamber spun off a PAC which supports pro-growth candidates. The PAC also supports candidates who support giving the Chamber more money. In its July, 2018 meeting, the county Commission increased the Chamber’s annual payment from $295,000 to $400,000.
The Chamber claims the PAC is a separate entity, but the chairman of the PAC is also on the Board of the Chamber. Three individuals are in leadership positions in both the Chamber and the PAC.
Further, in at least one case, a PAC Board member reports to the chairman of the Chamber Executive Committee in his day job. The Williamson Business PAC is clearly attached to the Williamson County Chamber of Commerce, and will push its goals.
While Chamber and PAC members can caucus all day in closed-door meetings, the disempowered Williamson County Commission is saddled with ‘sunshine’ laws which prevent any 2 members from even taking a coffee break together in private. Not that they could achieve anything by meeting for coffee. The powerful county executive, the main force behind handing the store over to the Chamber, picks most key committee posts for the commission, and seems to direct many commission members on how to vote.
Why is the Williamson County Commission paying the Chamber of Commerce to promote growth which enriches a very small number of landowners and developers, but which will result in higher taxes and a lower quality of life for most county residents?
Hidden behind all the buzz about ‘regional solutions’, ‘new urbanism’ and ‘integrated’ mass transit plans is the simple fact that we can’t even get development to pay for the costs it is imposing on the county today.
A modest impact fee on new development to cover part of the cost of new schools, required by that new development, was met with a lawsuit by developers and, so far, is dead in the water. No surprise, these same developers – some of whom are headquartered out of state – make contributions to the PAC as well as direct contributions to county commissioner and city aldermen campaigns.
The inevitable financial shortfalls will have to be made up by higher taxes and more borrowing. The county’s more than $650 million of debt makes it the 2nd highest in Tennessee based on a per capita level of county indebtedness. Bond rating agency Moody’s says the county’s debt burden is “moderately above-average” and warns that further debt could imperil the county’s AAA bond rating.
Why are we even talking about more of this kind of growth before calculating the costs and figuring out a way to pay for it?
Meanwhile, the Chamber is planning taxpayer-funded ‘fact finding’ trips to Fairfax county, VA and Montgomery county, MD. Apparently, these counties are to serve as models for Williamson County. They have among the highest rates of property taxes in the nation as well as all the problems that come with congested urban/suburban environments. Even with their regional mass transit systems they have traffic jams that would give any Nashville commuter pause.
Maybe a group of independent citizens should take a trip to these places to see if that is the future we want. Maybe we should look into who is really benefiting from the planned growth in Williamson County. Maybe the nearly 1.5 million dollars county taxpayers have paid to the Chamber to promote unfunded and unwanted growth is enough already.
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Ira Weiss is a retired security executive with 28 years of experience servicing U.S. government agencies, DoD, foreign governments, high-profile corporate, commercial and industrial clients, and property management companies. Certified Protection Professional (CPP-ASIS), Certified Master Anti-Terrorism Specialist (CMAS – ATAB), Analytical Risk Management Certified, NRA Certified Instructor, Jurisdictional Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment Certified who migrated from the Washington, DC area.
Don Barnett is a retired IT professional and freelance writer living in Williamson County.