Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times County commissioners hear from Macon County Director of Schools Tony Boles regarding funding for a new elementary school during their meeting held Monday.

Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times

County commissioners hear from Macon County Director of Schools Tony Boles regarding funding for a new elementary school during their meeting held Monday.

The Macon County Commission moved to extend budget talks after a discussion on proposed tax increases at its meeting held on Monday evening, which consisted of both a full courtroom and members of the public lined up and down the courthouse stairs.

Under the budget committee's current proposal, residents would see a 16.7-cent property-tax increase and a $15-per-vehicle wheel-tax increase as the county grapples with the effects of population growth. The commission voted to hold an additional budget committee meeting next Monday to discuss the issue.

"(Our) general fund is solid today, but CTAS (County Technical Assistance Service) ... was here at our last meeting and discussed issues we don't want to get in like some of our neighboring counties," Macon County Mayor Steve Jones said, noting that the county has approximately $900,000 representing unpaid expenses from purchases such as site exploration for a planned justice center expansion. "If we don't (increase the general fund), we can probably get by this year ... after that, we're either going to be broke or have to be reporting to the state."

Jones added that the debt service fund, which the county plans to draw from for payments on a new elementary school and courthouse repairs, is healthy.

"Macon County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state," Jones said. "That's what's creating our problem, our infrastructure. Schools have more students than they've ever had. Last Friday, on a 125-bed facility the sheriff had 249 inmates in there."

Wheel-tax and property-tax increases had previously been discussed as additional funding options for a new elementary school in Lafayette, a project currently estimated at $31 million.

Revenue from 0.5% sales-tax increase passed in November 2018 is being set aside to cover a majority of that expense.

"Right now, (the sales tax) looks like it's going to generate $925,000 to $930,000 (a year)," Jones said. "A payment for that new school is going to be about $1.8 million, so you've got to figure out how to pay the other."

The Macon County Board of Education has asked the commission to cover the remainder of that cost to allow them to focus on additions to Macon County High School, Macon County Junior High School and Red Boiling Springs School, though the budget committee's existing proposal would not allocate any additional funds.

"In our discussions about how to pay the remainder, the school system has never asked for a tax increase," Macon County Director of Schools Tony Boles said. "Take existing property tax or existing wheel tax and turn that money into debt service to pay school debt. If the school system had to fund half of the payment ... there would have to be several cuts made within the school system."

Boles said that services and future building projects would likely be affected, but he noted that salaries would not be cut because of the state's minimum required teacher pay.

"The board would have to vote on whether they chose to make that half a payment," Boles said. "If (not paying) was the decision of the board, there would have to be numbers crunching. The budget would have to be down to bare bones in order to generate that kind of revenue."

Boles said that if the commission were to fund the remainder of the new elementary school, the board of education would be able to finance the school additions, which are meant to both account for growth and eliminate the need for students to use portable classrooms.

"We did agree to fund the $2.9-million projects at Red Boiling Springs," commissioner Phillip Snow said. "The way I understood it is, when the debt comes off from the (Westside) roof (project) ... we'll use that out of debt service to pay for those additions so you don't have to."

During a school-board meeting held on June 6, board chair Jeff Harper said that the board is currently capable of funding the RBS additions but not the other two projects, and he noted that a formal decision would depend on the county commission's payment toward the new school.

Boles said that the board will have approximately $3.2 million in savings to begin the 2019-20 school year after taking out the balance from its budget, meaning it would struggle to make continued payments on the new school.

"I'm not denying the need for the new school," commissioner Tony Wix said. "What I've got a problem with is that it seems like every time we turn around we're pushing new taxes down people's throats, and I don't think that's right. I know we need the money, but people have been lied to about things, and it needs to stop."

Wix said he wants to see more focus on bringing jobs into the county to boost sales-tax revenue in order to avoid further tax increases.

"If we had this school and we could show (businesses) our schools are not overcrowded," Boles said. "If they're modern and up to date, it might be more enticing to bring industry in."

Commissioner Justin Dyer proposed funding part of of the new school's payments and renegotiating the portion each year, noting that the county's growth should result in both the commission and the board paying less over time.

"Let's say two years down the road we're generating $1.1 million (in sales tax)," Dyer said. "If (the school payments) are stretched out to 30 years, we may get 15 years down the road and find neither of us is paying for it, just sales tax."

Commissioner Michael Slayton questioned the level of investment into the school system and said he wants to prioritize access to clean water in the county.

"A lot of my constituents that have called in, and I agree with them, have said it's a big hit," Slayton said. "You're looking at $52 million (the estimated cost of the new school and additions combined) that this county's going to be invested in, and a lot of people in my area still don't have access to clean water. You've got to take care of the kids at school, but you've also got to take care of them at home."

Boles said that the school's projected cost has steadily increased over time, and that it would benefit the county to complete the build sooner than later.

"We've been talking about this school building project going on three years," Boles said. "At the time we started, we were looking at $26 million. In three years time, the projected budget is close to $31 million ... the longer we wait to get this project completed, the higher the prices will go."

Although members of the public were not given the floor to comment, the commission scheduled a public hearing at Macon County Junior High School for 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

In addition, the Macon County Commission's next meeting, where action will be taken on the proposed tax increases, was postponed and will be held at 6:30 p.m. on July 29, at the Macon County Court House.