A document released prior to the meeting of the Budget Committee of the Sumner County Board of County Commissioners reveals that a property tax increase of at least 20 percent is in store for Sumner County taxpayers for the second time in five years.
The property tax increase will, once again, coincide with Sumner County’s five year property reappraisal process as it did in 2014.
Following the 2014 reappraisal, which some elected and non-elected officials disputed to the State Board of Equalization to no avail, Sumner County’s newly-elected County Commission approved more than a 20 percent property tax increase.
At the time, the property tax increase was approved through back-to-back special-called meetings of the Budget Committee and the County Commission. The ability to repeat that practice has been stopped, due to a resolution proposed by Commissioner Moe Taylor (I-District 1) (pictured above), and subsequently approved by the full commission, that requires a seven-day period between the Budget Committee and full County Commission approvals of a property tax increase.
As the budgets for 2019-2020 were being formalized in May 2019, a slide presentation by Sumner County Finance Director David Lawing included one titled “Possible Narrative For Property Tax Rate.”
At the time, the certified tax rate from the five-year reappraisal process was still pending the completion of the appeals process.
After adding in an allowance for the appeals, the slide also showed a $0.14 adder to capture inflation incurred over the previous five years. The two adders accounted for an 11 percent increase in the property tax rate of the then-estimated certified tax rate.
This, while Sumner County government has enjoyed surpluses year after year, as reported by The Tennessee Star when the 2018 property tax rate was approved and more recently as the proposed budgets clearly indicated a property tax increase would be needed.
Sumner County’s budget surpluses over the past several years has exceeded the inflationary figure being included in any proposed property tax increases.
Additionally, a review of Sumner County’s revenues over the past five years by the conservative think tank Beacon Center of Tennessee revealed a 31 percent increase in property tax revenues as well as 30 percent growth in total revenues, while an increase to the property tax rate is being considered, as The Star reported.
Beacon Center’s Director of Director of Policy & Research, Ron Shultis, said that, “This is being sold to taxpayers as a revenue problem, instead of a spending problem.”
Sumner County Commissioners and citizens alike expressed concerns that funding of the volunteer fire departments, which provided fire protection in the rural areas of Sumner County, were being completely defunded of the $312,000 included in last year’s budget.
Meanwhile $3.5 million is budgeted to renovate a barn, with the intention of using it as an event center. The deed for the barn carries a reversion clause back to the grantor if certain conditions are not met, like a renovation that meets the approval of the grantor.
The grantor of the property to Sumner County is Rogers Group, Inc., the largest privately owned construction aggregate (graded stone, sand and gravel) company in the U.S., operating over 50 quarries and 30 asphalt plants in Tennessee alone, according to the company’s website.
A Rogers Group quarry is adjacent to the land on which the barn sits.
The company also supports various candidates for political office, including being a major contributor to the campaign of Sumner County Mayor Anthony Holt.
Much of the discussion occurred prior to the release of the certified tax rate by the Assessor of Property last week. The certified tax rate resulting from the five-year reappraisal process is $1.9284, a decrease of about 30 percent from the current $2.50.
The certified tax rate at $1.9284, which is revenue neutral to the county, offsets the increase in Sumner County property values over the five-year period between property reappraisals.
Since the release of the certified tax rate by the Assessor of Property, John Isbell, on August 5, a series of events has occurred that plays into the proposed property tax increase.
At the Education Committee of the Sumner County Commission also on August 5, School Director Del Phillips attended and reported that Sumner County had been awarded a grant, as part of Governor Lee’s school safety program. The grant would pay for the salaries of 15 additional school resources officers (SRO’s) for two years, putting an SRO in every Sumner County school, a promise that was made back in 2014 when that new commission came into office.
The grant will not, however, cover benefits or vehicles for the SROs, and it is anticipated that Sumner County will have to pick up the full cost of the SROs at the end of the two-year grant.
There was no indication during the Education Committee as to the cost of the benefits or vehicles over the next two years or the additional salary cost Sumner County will be responsible for at the end of the two-year period.
Then, at the August 6 study session of the Sumner County School Board, Director Phillips announced he would be seeking an across-the-board $4,000 pay increase for each teacher in the Sumner County school system starting in the next school year of 2020-2021.
The increase in teacher pay was not included in the 2019-2020 budget presented by Director Phillips at the Budget Workshop on May 14 which was subsequently approved by the Sumner County School Board on May 21 and later approved at a joint meeting of the Sumner County Board of Commissioners Education and Budget Committee on May 29.
Phillips, who has been Director of Sumner County Schools since 2011, presented a table showing that Sumner County teacher pay is behind those of neighboring middle Tennessee counties.
Since Phillips presented his proposal at a study session, there could be no vote on the pay increase by the School Board. Neither was there any mention of the pay increase by Director Phillips at the previous night’s County Commission Education Committee meeting, although he issued a letter and posted about it on Facebook at 9:12 p.m. the night of the School Board study session.
A newer slide titled “Requested Tax Rate’s Composition,” was included in the 220-plus pages of the Budget Committee agenda information released in two parts near the end of business on Friday, August 9 for the meeting to be held on Monday, August 12.
The slide starts with the certified tax rate of $1.9284 per $100 of assessed value and adds on from there as follows:
+ $0.1436 Inflation
+ $0.0250 School Resource Officers in Every School
+ $0.0200 Additional Highway Department Needs
+ $0.0550 Jail Module, Parking Garage, and Justice Center
+ $0.0250 Additional County Capital Needs
+ $0.1200 School Teacher Pay Increases
This totals up to a new tax rate of $2.3170, which is a 20.2 percent property tax increase.. The 20-plus percent increase still does not include any indication that the cost of rural fire protection will be covered without further increases in the property tax rate.
It is also unclear why the cost of teacher pay raises for the 2020-2021 school year is being added into the tax increase for the current 2019-2020 budget year, when School Director Phillip’s announcement clearly states that he proposed “a $4,000 pay increase for all certified staff beginning with the 2020-2021 school year.” (emphasis added)
The increase to teacher pay accounts for $0.12, or about 30 percent, of the property tax rate increase.
The $4,000 pay increase would have a total cost of $8.8 million to Sumner County taxpayers, according to Tennessee Education Report.
The $4,000 “would bring Sumner County in line with similar districts,” says Tennessee Education Report.
Although the value of the benefits package was not indicated, the Tennessee Education Report went further, “Sumner already has one of the best benefit packages in middle Tennessee,” says its publisher, Andy Spears.
Spears is also the Executive Director of Strong Schools PAC (Political Action Committee) that endorsed candidates from all parties, including one aligned with far-left organizations, in the 2018 Sumner County Commission race. Fourteen of the 24 current County Commissioners, or more than half of the majority needed for most votes, were endorsed by Strong Schools PAC.
Spears, an avowed Trump resister, encouraged Tennessee teachers to go on an illegal strike earlier this year, as reported by The Star.
In order for the tax increase to go into effect, the County Commission will need to first pass the certified tax rate of $1.9284 and then pass a separate resolution for a tax rate that exceeds the certified tax rate, both by a simple majority vote.
The vote to exceed the certified tax rate must, by state law, be preceded by a notice to the public in a newspaper of general circulation in the county.
There appears to be no such notification in the Main Street Media of Tennessee publications for Sumner County for the week of August 8, or on the Tennessee Public Notices search engine which shows four such notifications for the 2014 property tax increase.
The notice of intent to exceed certified tax rate was, however, posted to the Sumner County website’s County Commission page on Friday, August 9, and can be found here.
The notice states that, “Based on the proposed 2019-2020 budgets for both the County and the school system, there is potential that the certified tax rate will need to be exceeded in order to fund the approved budgets.” (emphasis added)
The notice states that a tax rate that potentially exceeds the certified tax rate will be needed to fund the approved budgets. Since the budgets have not yet been approved, the statement is erroneous or made under the assumption that the budgets will be approved.
In fact, the budgets appear as a line item “FY2020 budgets” on the agenda of the Budget Committee meeting scheduled for August 12, 2019, at 6:00 p.m. If approved, the budgets will then need to advance to the full Board of County Commissioners for final approval.
According to the “Notice of Intent to Exceed Certified Tax Rate,” a public hearing on the matter will be held at the regularly scheduled meeting of the Sumner County Board of Commissioners on August 19, 2019, at 7:00 p.m. (local time).
This is the same meeting at which Sumner County Schools Director Del Phillips plans to present his $4,000 teacher pay increase to the County Commission.
Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.