The main concerns addressed by the hearing attendees were the proposed increase of 10 cent to the property tax rate and its possible effect on county residents, the hiring of new school resource officers and county employee pay rates, pensions and insurance premiums.
Around half of those in attendance took the opportunity to voice their opinions on the proposed budget, including Robert Stevens, county commissioner for District 12 in Smyrna, and the first attendee to speak.
“I approached this budget, and all the votes that we make, with these two questions in mind: is this a good business decision and is it the best that we can offer our constituents?” Stevens said.
Stevens made several suggestions for how the county could address the issues he saw with the budget, such as switching the retirement plans for new hires from a pension plan to a 401k, reconsidering health insurance rates and reducing the level of coverage for spouses on the county health plan. He also proposed eliminating the 11 new SRO positions and the expanded pay grades for county employees.
“Health insurance, pensions and debt are what brought down cities in California, and if we don’t make some changes to our pension system and our health insurance plan, we’re going to be on the same track,” Stevens said.
Other residents spoke of the economic impact that higher tax rates might have on the county.
“We actually pay more [in taxes] than all of our surrounding counties, except for Davidson,” said Gabriel Fancher, a Murfreesboro resident, in relation to Tennessee’s ability to attract new businesses with its low tax rates. “So, where do you think these new businesses are going to go? Well, they go to Williamson County, right? That’s where everything seems to go, and Williamson County gets to pay less and less taxes, because they keep those taxes low.”
The current budget proposal is just a “stop-gap plan,” which will result in more tax hikes in the near future if the county doesn’t address its spending, Fancher said, and he suggested the committee consider instead adopting a competing budget proposal made by County Commissioner Charlie Baum, a professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University. Baum's proposal suggests spending cuts instead of tax increases.
Jeremy Near, a Smyrna resident who moved from New York state last year as a result of the Empire State’s higher tax rates, told the committee that although the county’s tax burden wasn’t at the same level as New York’s yet, choosing to increase taxes is a slippery slope to go down.
“A lot of folks brought up a lot of good points about future expenditures to come,” Near said. “Those things are going to creep up on you, and unless you address spending instead of tax hikes, that burden is going to fall solely on the people of this county. And it would be unfortunate to see the mass exodus out of this county the way that we’ve seen out of New York state in the last 10 years.”
Two rental property owners, Robert Stroop, of Halls Hill, and Dorsey Meeks, of Rockvale, also opposed the property tax increase on the grounds that higher tax rates would likley result in higher rental rates, which would negatively impact the poorer residents of the county, who have less flexible income.
Although a majority of those in attendance spoke in opposition to the tax increase and the increased spending, some county residents did speak in support of the proposed budget.
“Please keep us moving forward. We cannot afford to drop the ball. We are growing, and growth does not pay for itself in a timely manner,” said Kathy McMahan, a retired teacher living in Murfreesboro.
Several speakers at the hearing also spoke in support of the proposed new SRO positions.
Scott Lewis, husband of a Rutherford County teacher, told those in attendance that the Newtown, Conn., school shooting had affected his wife so much that for days she came home from school crying. He added he didn’t think it was too much to raise taxes and ensure that schools were staffed with SROs.
“I just don’t think that the extra $30, $50, $100, depending on the value of your home, is really going to make or break many people. I understand that for some people it may be a hardship, but most people in general, I think they could do that,” Lewis said. “If people need suggestions on how to come up with an extra $50 a year, $80 a year, maybe one less soda a week, skip your latte a couple of days, one less dinner a year out with the family. It’s not that big of a burden,” he added.
If there had been an SRO at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., the outcome would have been very different, and fewer children would have been killed, said Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold in response to comments that employing SROs would not likley change the outcome of a school shooting.
“I didn’t put it in my budget, but I support it 100 percent,” Arnold added.
The budget committee meets Wednesday, June 19, to discuss the public comments and to consider changes, and the full County Commission will meet Friday, June 28, to vote on the budget proposal.