County votes to borrow $103M for new schools

A new school campus proposed for the area north of Hendersonville received the final go-ahead on Monday when members of the Sumner County Commission voted 18 to 5 to borrow up to $103 million to fund the new facility.

Director of Schools Del Phillips unveiled plans for a $99.4 million two-school campus off of Upper Station Camp Creek Road on Oct. 23. The Sumner County Board of Education voted unanimously a week later to approve the plans.

The county purchased the 265-acre property in 2015 in anticipation of continued residential growth in the area.

The plans include an elementary school at an estimated cost of $22.8 million and a high school with a freshman wing for middle school students that is estimated to cost around $76.5 million. A middle school will be built at a later date and will require additional funding. The plans do not include the funding for staffing at the new schools.

The resolution authorizing the issuance of the bonds for the purpose of financing schools and certain public works projects did not come without discussion on Monday with several commissioners expressing concern regarding the county’s capacity to borrow more money.  

Commissioner Merrol Hyde of Hendersonville asked Finance Director David Lawing how much debt capacity would be available after this bond issuance.

He then asked Budget Committee Chairman Chris Taylor if the county has enough borrowing capacity for the planned middle school and a proposed $100 million judicial complex.

Lawing said that the county could issue another bond as early as January 2023, assuming there is zero growth in the county.

“We constantly have debt being paid off,” said Taylor, noting that the courthouse project would take several years to come to full fruition. Taylor also acknowledged the county would be receiving an additional $2.9 million in the form of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds from Hendersonville’s Indian Lake Village within the next two or three years.

Hyde noted that with the anticipated growth also comes with the additional need to fund services for those moving to the area.

“I’m not opposed to growth, but I am opposed to uncontrolled growth,” he said. “It’s got to be controlled better than what we are doing now.”

Hyde said he’d like to see a detailed plan for how the county pays for the building and staff of the three proposed schools as well as the proposed judicial complex before voting to approve the bonds.

Hyde also said he feared county commissioners were planning to keep the tax rate at $2.50 per $100 of assessed value following a reappraisal in 2019. Sumner County Assessor of Property John Isbell has said he expects property values to increase by 25 to 30 percent. By law, he would be required to set a revenue neutral tax rate that would likely come in much lower than the $2.50 rate.

“I hope this is not what we’re thinking – that we’re going to keep the tax rate what it is,” said Hyde.

His motion to refer the resolution back to the county’s budget committee failed 9 to 14.

Commissioner Jeremy Mansfield asked when a new middle school would be built.

Phillips said the new school would likely open in the fall of 2026 and that the funding would need to be secured in 2025.

Mansfield also asked commissioners if the intent is to certify the tax rate next year at $2.50.

“We’re not going to be able to speak [about that] until we get a report from Mr. Isbell,” said Commission Chairman Scott Langford.

Isbell has not issued a report but spoke at an informal meeting concerning the proposed judicial complex recently, saying he would reduce the rate to $1.8 and that county leaders indicated they wanted to maintain the $2.5 rate. 

Langford said the judicial complex will take around two years to design and that architectural fees have already been paid. It will be at least 2021 before the county will be ready to break ground, Langford noted. He also said the project would be phased in over eight to 10 years and would not be paid for all at once.

In addition, the county will be paying off existing debt, Langford said.

“We’ve got a plan to borrow, where’s the plan to pay it back?” asked Commissioner Steve Graves.

“We’re paying it back in our current structure,” said Langford.

The county currently has a little more than $143 million of debt without the $103 million, Graves noted.

Commissioner Baker Ring said the new schools were needed and urged leaders to vote to fund them.

“Whether you like to borrow money or not, we need to build a new school,” said Ring. “We don’t need to become the school system of portables like we were four or five years ago.”

Under the proposed bond series plan, the county will pay a total of $42,921,120 in interest and around $7.3 million each year to debt service until 2038. The bonds will likely be issued in January.

Commissioners Moe Taylor, Mansfield, Luke Tinsley, Hyde and Terry Wright voted against the resolution. Graves was counted present, but didn’t vote.

Commissioners also voted to fund architectural contracts and fees for the new elementary school and high school. Kaatz, Binkley, Jones and Morris Architects, Inc. of Mt. Juliet will design the schools.

Both the new elementary and high school are expected to be bid in June with a planned opening date of the fall of 2021. 

The Sumner County Board of Education is expected to vote on a proposed two-stage rezoning plan on first reading on Nov. 27. A final vote is expected after the first of the year – likely in February.

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