Rutherford County mayor launches online petition supporting impact fees to fund growth

More than 2,000 Rutherford County residents have signed a new online petition advocating that "growth should pay for itself," Mayor Joe Carr announced at a Thursday press conference.

With an extra 22,400 people coming to Rutherford County from 2020 to 2022, Carr and county officials are looking for ways to secure more revenue to build new schools and strengthen infrastructure, for example.

Carr said during the press conference that he wants the Tennessee General Assembly to grant fast-growing Rutherford the same taxing authority on growth that Williamson, Wilson and cities have. He mentioned wanting the county to have the same taxing authority as Murfreesboro, Smyrna, La Vergne and Eagleville through charging impact fees on new development to help pay for growth.

“We’re not asking for anything more, and we will accept nothing less,” said Carr, a Republican who won his seat August 2022.

Rutherford County Schools Director James "Jimmy" Sullivan, left, and Mayor Joe Carr pose Thursday after a press conference at the County Courthouse to advocate for more revenues from growth through development taxes and impact fees to help pay for needed schools. Both officials stand by a chart that demonstrates that Rutherford County has more students but collects less than two counties with fewer students, Williamson and Wilson.

County officials launched the petition two weeks ago as part of a website to advocate for the state to permit the local government to have authority to collect an impact fee from new development to fund county capital projects such building new schools.

The mayor spoke at a lectern Thursday at the Rutherford County Courthouse with six other Rutherford County officials standing behind him to show their support: Schools Director James “Jimmy” Sullivan; Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh; Fire Rescue Chief Larry Farley; Highway Superintendent Greg Brooks; Emergency Medical Service Director Brian Gaither; and Public Safety Director Chris Clark.

Growth issues: Rutherford officials say 'growth should pay for itself' in resolution to state legislators

Mayor contends growth has caused property tax hikes

Carr said the government needs "growth to pay for itself" to avoid placing more of a burden on existing property taxpayers.

Home owners and others with real estate are paying a 16.1% property tax hike the mayor recommended this year to eliminate a $64 million deficit from the previous year’s budget to fund projects and services because of the growth, Carr said.

“It’s not fair,” said Carr, adding that he opposes any new property tax hikes to pay for growth.

“It’s not right.”

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Rutherford collects much less on growth than 2 neighboring counties

The press conference came the night after seven state lawmakers who represent Rutherford met with members of the County Commission at the County Courthouse to discuss growth taxes. None of the lawmakers appeared to show support for giving the County Commission authority to establish any new taxes or fees on growth.

The lawmakers mentioned possibilities of increasing state revenues for the county’s public schools.

State Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, also talked about allowing the local government to increase the existing county school facilities of $1 per square foot tax on new housing to $1.50 and the ability to raise this by 10% every three years instead of four.

Future tax hikes? 'If we don't fix growth paying for itself, we will be in same situation'

The Tennessee General Assembly established the law to permit fast-growing counties to charge the school facilities tax in 2006 through the County Powers Relief Act.

Rutherford at this time raises about $5.8 million annually through the county school facilities tax to help fund campus projects. The county serves nearly 52,000 students at 50 schools and typically adds over 1,000 children annually.

Rutherford’s annual school facilities tax brings in much less than what two neighboring counties with fewer student populations each collect from growth taxes: Williamson County, $30.8 million; and Wilson County, $16.9 million, according to a study on 2022 data from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

Tax relief: 16.1% property tax hike won't apply to eligible tax freeze recipients who already applied

Property assessor questions impact fee statements

Rutherford County Property Assessor Rob Mitchell said he was unaware of the mayor’s press conference.

Mitchell said impact fees can be great for raising revenues.

“Any characterization of my position as being in opposition to impact fees is politically motivated and a lie,” Mitchell said.

Rob Mitchell
Rob Mitchell

Mitchell, however, said it is incorrect for officials to suggest that impact fees or development taxes will prevent property tax increases.

“What is being overlooked is how property assessments and valuations work,” Mitchell said. “Anything that leads to an increase in the sales price for a new property will have an impact on the market value on all existing homes in the county at reappraisal time. That’s just how it works.”

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County needs $280 million to fund 3 schools

The county in particular needs revenues to build new schools to keep up with growth, said Sullivan, whose district depends on 179 portable classrooms spread among many overcrowded campuses.

“There’s no doubt we need new buildings,” Sullivan said after the press conference. “Without additional help, those new buildings are going to be hard to (fund).”

Sullivan expects the county to spend about $280 million to build three more schools in the next three years: a westside elementary school in the Blackman community to open by August 2025; a westside middle school to open by August 2026; and a high school to open by August 2027 on the northwest side on yet identified property to relieve overcrowding at La Vergne High and Stewarts Creek High in southwest Smyrna.

The county has westside land for the elementary school and middle school after buying about 61 acres of historic farmland  from John L. Batey on the northside of Baker Road near Blackman Road. Batey retained most of his family farm that dates back to 1807. The family's historic cemetery includes the grave of Wilbur, the pig used for the cover of a 2006 edition of the book, "Charlotte's Webb."

Wilbur, 2006-2019: 'He was some pig'

Carr said much of the reason why people are wanting to move to Rutherford is because the school district is providing excellent services. He touted the district’s 96.2% graduation rate and two magnet schools in the downtown area with strong reputations for serving high achievers: McFadden School of Excellence and Central Magnet School.

“That’s impressive,” Carr said. “I get why people want to live here. I live here. I’ve lived here all my life, and I want to stay here.”

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Revenues to help pay for school projects

  • Rutherford County, which has nearly 52,000 students: $5.8 million

  • Williamson County, which has about 42,000 students: $30.8 million

  • Wilson County, which has about 19,500 students: $16.9 million

Sources: Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations study on 2022 data and current year student enrollment estimates for Rutherford, Williamson and Wilson school districts

This article originally appeared on The Daily Herald: Rutherford mayor launches online petition advocating for growth funds