A man who asked if Williamson County should turn down growth and immigration later refused to identify himself. /Photo by Brooke Wanser.
By BROOKE WANSER
At Friday morning’s county town hall to explain the sales tax referendum in support of schools, panelists fielded a question from a man asking if the county truly wants to invite in more people and companies.
An elderly man, who later declined to identify himself, said he follows the school buses out of his neighborhood many mornings.
“Every person getting on that school bus is an immigrant. I go down a little bit further and there’s an apartment complex. Every single student that’s getting on the bus at the apartment is a Mexican,” he said.
“Is this what we want, or can we eliminate the traffic and not encourage industry to come here?” he finished.
Looney responded first: “I would say our diversity is increasing, I consider it a blessing,” he said to loud applause. “I happen to believe a community is green and growing and attracting people to the community or it’s dying.”
Mayor Anderson asked everyone in the room who was born and raised in Williamson County to raise their hands. About five out of the room of 50 raised their hands, not including the man who asked the questions.
“All of us are the problem,” he said.
“I’m not even going to address the question about immigrants,” Largen said, instead explaining the importance of sustainable county growth.
The event, hosted by Williamson, Inc. at Columbia State Community College, featured panelists Dr. Mike Looney, the Director of Williamson County Schools, county Mayor Rogers Anderson and Williamson, Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Matt Largen.
The panel convened to explain further the county-wide sales tax referendum, which is currently in the early voting period.
If passed, the referendum would increase the sales tax in each of five cities in the county from 9.25 to 9.75 percent; officials say the increase will garner between 22 to 25 million.
Additionally, Anderson explained that all of the cities in the county, including Fairview, already at the maximum sales tax capacity, would be giving city revenue of 1.5 percent towards county schools for a three year period. The money will go only toward funding the building of new schools, not operational costs.
Looney said the population of county schools is set to increase by 20,000 students in the next decade; schools are currently growing by 20 to 30 students each week, he said.
“The reality of it is we need about 17 new campuses, he said, explaining that the funding process takes about six months while construction of new schools takes about two years. “We’re behind schedule,” Looney said.
Anderson explained the other options for funding schools, like a wheel tax, raising property taxes, and the property impact fee enacted in 2017. Money is still being gathered from that impact fee, though none of it can be used due to current litigation against the county.
Former Franklin Mayor Tom Miller said he supported school funding, but questioned why a small property tax increase had not been more actively pursued.
“If you raise the property taxes, not all of it goes towards schools,” Anderson pointed out.
Kenneth Eaton, who is running against Anderson for county mayor, also said Miller’s math in guessing the amount a minimal property tax increase would raise for the county was off.
He also reasserted his claim that schools need to take a look at the budget and try to cut down on wasteful spending, saying the current solution was a “Band Aid.”
“If you’re going to implement a tax, and the tax stays there three years from now and it doesn’t solve the problem, then why are we doing it?” he said.
Looney said Williamson schools are already in the bottom 35 to 40 percent of state schools in terms of spending, while consistently outperforming other Tennessee school districts.
“We can’t continue to provide the quality of education that we’ve been doing with kids sitting on the floor at lunch and having class in hallways,” he pointed out. “That’s not a sustainable model.”
Largen, who has long been a proponent of the sales tax increase for the business community, reiterated his stance.
“Talent is driven to this community because of the schools. Companies are driven to this community because of the talent,” Largen said. “It’s really that simple.”