Despite a pending lawsuit with General Sessions and Circuit Court Clerk Lisa Niles and a failed payment in lieu of taxes agreement with Tate & Lyle, Loudon County Commission can boast hallmark achievements in 2015, like holding the line on property taxes, enticing additional industry and making progress on a jail expansion.
“I think the commission’s done a good job with the budget, sticking within our limits,” Commissioner Matthew Tinker said. “I’m happy to see some of the new businesses that are coming in and the expansion of others. I hope that that’ll bring in some others, good tax revenue in the future and hopefully some new people to the community and better jobs for the ones that already live here.”
Being able to make budget cuts where necessary and avoid a property tax increase is what Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw said is the biggest accomplishment for the still relatively new group of county officials that include a mayor and six commissioners who will soon complete their first full year in office.
“It was definitely a learning process,” Bradshaw said.
In a June meeting, commission approved a $16.6 million county general fund expense budget that included no property tax increase and a 2 percent across-the-board raise for county employees, excluding elected officials.
“If you look at the cuts we made, we really — just not me but the commission as a whole, I think we’ve done what we’ve promised to do,” Bradshaw said. “We’ve cut that spending back, and we’ve recognized what was necessity and what was luxury, and I think we’ve trimmed the budget back to that. I think that’s something we also promised the taxpayers, and I think that’s something that we were able to accomplish this year.”
Bradshaw said avoiding a tax increase will continue to be a personal goal. He and the county’s budget committee will begin preparation for the next fiscal year in March.
Bradshaw said an ongoing challenge for officials is to bring more businesses into the county, which, in turn, will create more jobs for residents locally.
Earlier this year, the Loudon County Economic Development Agency Board of Directors and the Joint Economic and Community Development Board Development Agency met to approve two payment in lieu of tax agreements with VanHooseCo and Morgan Olson, which at the time was called Project Moon.
“I’d like to get it to a point where ... anybody in Loudon County that’s looking for a job will be able to find a job, and I think we’re getting close to that,” Bradshaw said.
Per a 50 percent, 10-year PILOT agreement, Morgan Olson will need to reach at least 80 percent of the projected 500 jobs to come from the company’s planned expansion by the time the period ends. Morgan Olson is expected to invest $45 million, with $10 million in real property and $35 million in personal property. The agreement will begin Jan. 1 and carry through Dec. 31, 2025.
VanHooseCo was also granted a 50 percent, five-year PILOT agreement. The company plans to invest $12 million in personal and real property and hire 65 employees. The project will generate $2.4 million in payroll and $630,000 in retail sales each year at maximum employment.
“From my opinion I think that is great,” Commissioner Henry Cullen said about Morgan Olson. “They’re paying ... top pay, and they’re going to employ 400-500 people? That is great for the county.”
While those agreements passed muster, the PILOT with Tate & Lyle fell through in September. Bradshaw said county officials have had no discussions with the company since the failed deal. Tate & Lyle and the county have been in an ongoing dispute related to the company’s property tax assessment.
“I think the next step will be going to court,” Bradshaw said.
Cullen said he was pleased with the progress made by the Loudon County Corrections Partnership Committee in considering a future expansion at Loudon County Jail, noting the committee was now taking a look at the design and cost of a potential project.
“How far that goes after we find the price tag’s going to be interesting,” Cullen said. “... With the jail comes a price tag, and that’s going to be the issue. If it starts creeping up there $16-$20 million, there’s going to be some people pushing back on that in my opinion.”
Bradshaw said he planned to meet with Tennessee Corrections Institute this week in an attempt to avoid decertification. The jail committee will meet in March, and Bradshaw said commission will meet sometime shortly thereafter to consider funding an expansion. A decision will likely need to be made within 12-24 months, otherwise the county could face jail decertification, he said.
“I think if it was to come down to some sort of an increase, then I think the important thing to remember — and I think commission will agree with me on this — is that we put that sunset clause into it,” Bradshaw said. “If we are forced into this, then however we choose to fund it — which I guess tax increases are probably the fairest and easiest — but I think it’d be important we put a sunset clause in it where the year after this debt would be paid off. The tax money — at least the greatest line share of it — would go back to the people.”
During the November meeting, jail committee members voted to spend an hourly fee of up to $60,000 for civil engineering firm Michael Brady Inc., for program verification and conceptual designs at the current Justice Center property.
“Any tax increase is going to be just what we need to cover what we have to do,” Cullen said. “We’re not looking to raise taxes. We’ve heard that message loud and clear from the people, but it all depends where this jail goes. If you don’t have six commissioners say yes they support the expansion of the jail, it’s over.”
The court date between Bradshaw and Niles is scheduled Dec. 10-11 at Loudon County Courthouse. Niles has asked for six new deputy clerks at a base salary of $31,000, and pay increases for more than 15 full- and part-time employees in her department. If Chancellor Frank V. Williams III rules in favor of Niles, the county will be on the hook for meeting her requests.
“That would certainly put an extra burden on the amount of money that we have coming in, so we would need to — there’s only two ways to handle it,” Tinker said. “You either make cuts in other areas to pay for that or you raise property taxes.”
When asked if there was additional room to make cuts in the budget, Tinker said, “If we could have cut more out of the budget and left people still in good shape then that would have been the responsible thing to do at that time. So if there are cuts that had to be made going into the future, it would definitely affect services that the county provides.
“So do you want to lose some of the services and cut back on manpower or raise property taxes?” he added. “Those are kind of the only choices.”