Commissioners debate funding construction, renovations of various county schools

Author: Mary E. Hinds News Herald

The Loudon County Commission continued the debate on how to fund the county school building program at Monday evening’s meeting ultimately passing a motion to ask the county budget committee to come up with a plan to fund the program as much as possible without raising property taxes.

Commissioner Don Miller, who initially proposed raising the property tax rate this year to fund the estimated $47 million Phase I of the building program, said he had changed his mind and now feels it would be better to fund part of the plan and avoid a property tax increase. He said he had been in talks with Director of Accounts and Budgets Tracy Blair, “looking where we can get tax pennies from without compromising the future.” 

Miller’s new plan would use 8.9 pennies from the Rural Debt Fund (Fund 156) which would equal $12.9 million, taking 1.9 pennies from the county school’s operating budget (Fund 141) equaling $2.7 million, taking 1.5 pennies from the General Debt Fund (Fund 151) equaling $2.2 million and taking 1.3 pennies from the General Fund (Fund 101) equaling half a million dollars for total of $19. 7 million.

Phase I of the building plan proposed by the county school board estimated a $28 million price tag for a new Greenback School, $13.5 million for a new middle school, $4.3 million to combine Loudon Elementary and Fort Loudoun Middle School and $1.4 million for improvements in the Philadelphia Elementary cafeteria for a total of $47.2 million. 

Miller said the advantages of this plan was it avoids a property tax increase this year in this bad economy, it would allow the school board to get some building projects going now and it would give everyone a better idea of the building costs for the remaining projects.

He said the county should be able to fund $19 to $20 million without a tax increase. He also cautioned the commission the Basic Education Program (BEP) funds the county schools receive from the state will decline. “We’re going to get less money,” he said. 

Commissioner Austin Shaver, who first proposed funding the building plan without a property tax increase, thanked Miller for “working toward a sustainable plan” and adding he only disagreed with Miller’s conclusions about how much the county general fund would shrink and that a 20-year bond is the only one available.

“I’ve been told a 30-year is available,” Shaver said. Miller suggested he, Shaver and Blair “sit down and talk and at least we’ll be using the same numbers.”

Blair spoke up saying she had spoken with the securities company and was told, “30 years is possible but 20 years is more readily available.” 

Commissioner Bob Franke said he feared only funding part of Phase I of the building program would “address a little bit of the need” but he added the school board was “more focused” now than it had been in the past. He said if only half of Phase I is funded the plan would then “stop for who knows how long.”

He added he felt the commission should “be aggressive in supporting their request” and the bad economy might make for some lower bids from contractors.

“I don’t like taxes any more than anyone else but I’m not opposed to a small increase,” Franke said. 

Commissioner Harold Duff said he agreed with Franke that the scaled down plan would fund less than half of what the school board had proposed. He then read a position paper urging the commission to fund the building program and saying “outside officials should not decide what schools need.” He reminded the commission that Loudon County “is not a poor county” and “the responsibility is in our ball park.” 

Shaver said his calculations estimated the county could raise closer to $30 million. He also suggested the commission needed to release $1 million from Fund 156 to the school board so they could get more estimates of building costs. Shaver has frequently suggested the $47 million estimate was inflated. 

Commissioner Earlena Maples said while she supports schools, the commission needed to be mindful of the families in the county who have been hit hard by the bad economy and cannot afford a property tax increase. “These are the people who will have to fund what we pass.” Maples said. Commissioner Nancy Marcus agreed the commission should only “do what we can.” She said the problem in the past has been a reluctance to do one project “unless we can do them all”  with the result being nothing is done. She also questioned the proposal to take money from the school system’s operating fund. 

Marcus repeated her objections to Greenback getting a new school. Franke, who represents Greenback,  respectfully disagreed. “It’s not up to us to dictate what they build, it’s up to the school board.” He added if the voters don’t agree with the decision of the board or the commission, “they will vote us and them out” and concluded by saying, “We’ve beat this horse to death for years.”

With that, the commission voted to ask the county budget committee to study how much money could be raised without raising property taxes. 

Shaver then moved for the commission to release $1 million for the school board to use to get better cost estimates on the building project. Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp spoke up saying it wasn’t for the commission to be distributing funds to the school board unless they were requested. He said the commission was in danger of “micro managing” and “the school board needs to ask for funds.”

Arp said he had heard a lot of people questioning the architectural firms that have given the $47 million estimate but “it’s the school board’s responsibility to bring a proposal in.” Miller agreed the commission should wait for the board to request funds. “It’s their call,” Miller said.


Shaver said unless new companies give estimates there was the danger “the ones who inflated the cost would inflate the cost estimates” as well. 


The motion to release funds to the school board for more cost estimates failed. “I like the idea, but it’s not our responsibility to tell the school board what to do,” Miller said.