Williamson County represents not only the wealthiest county in Tennessee but also the fastest-growing. The county grew from about 126,000 to 184,000 residents from 2000 to 2010, or about 45 percent according to the Census Bureau. However, the fastest-growing county also faces a debt of about $486 million. According to county Mayor Rogers Anderson, the county is projected to double its population by 2035. Balance is key he said, and managing growth means managing the budget.
Anderson is proud that the county’s mix of growth, good schools and low taxes has been a lure for companies like Tractor Supply Co. and Nissan. He also added that Williamson County’s most prized resource makes up about 20 percent of its total population — its youth ages 19 and under. Although the funding of public education took about 64 percent of the county’s total budget this year, the mayor warns that all county dollars cannot go toward education.
The City Paper talked to him last week about a range of issues.
The last leg of state Route 840 opened up this fall. What type of economic impact do you expect for the county?
When you think about the implications of 840 connecting with three interstates from Rutherford to Williamson to Dickson, that’s a large surface mileage. In time, we’ve learned to realize how important roads are to our community and to our economic growth. I think in the next five to 10 years we will see a significant change not only in improved traffic patterns but more and more businesses locating to the area. Businesses look at access to get on and off interstates. I think the roadway had an impact on Mars Petcare relocating to Thompson Station about a half-mile from 840. I anticipate over the next five to 10 years, we will see a significant difference in commercial growth.
The county recently partnered with the City of Brentwood to provide economic incentives for Tractor Supply Co., the largest retail farm and ranch store in the U.S., to rebuild its headquarters in Brentwood. Was this a good deal for county? Should we expect more such deals in the future?
Tractor Supply is a wonderful corporation housed in Brentwood. The key points when considering any company for tax incentives are (1) How many new jobs will they create and (2) What kind of building impact will they have? [Tractor Supply will add about 300 jobs.] When a $50 to $100 million building is constructed, you develop a tax base in order to consider possible tax incentives. Our tax incentives are usually in the range of $2 million to $2.5 million savings over a 10-year window. For me, it is about jobs and helping to facilitate jobs in our community. I do not believe that government creates jobs. I do believe that we are a wonderful conduit to get those jobs here.
Every company that locates to Williamson County does not by any means receive tax incentives, but the ones that have a huge impact on the community, such as Community Health Service, which started with 750-800 jobs, now provides close to 2,300 jobs. Over the last 10 years, large corporations have relocated and remained in our community. During that time, we’ve given six to eight different tax-incentive deals from Nissan to the latest Tractor Supply. However, the vast majority of our growth occurs internally, through small businesses and entrepreneurs starting up their businesses, and we greatly appreciate that.
Was it a complicated effort to unify the three chambers of commerce, the Brentwood Cool Springs Chamber, the Cool Springs Chamber, and the Williamson County-Franklin Chamber? How do you think the unification will affect the county?
It will take a period of time to blend cultures and complete the process of combining bank accounts, etc. I think that it will be good for future businesses and the growth within businesses to have one unified voice instead of many different voices. Also, we will be rolling our economic development department into the chamber’s activities. I think that’s a good thing. In time, we will see the full transformation of the chambers becoming one, and economic development becoming part of the chamber’s activities rather than it functioning as a part of government as it is now. I don’t think that government can do the full job of economic development like an operation that sees the bigger picture. Long range planning needs to come outside of government. The government needs to get out of the way of private businesses and activities like the chamber.
At the last County Commission meeting in November, you addressed the county’s approximately $486 million debt, the county’s growth and public school funding. How will the debt affect the funding of public education and other county entities?
When you think about the distinction of being the fastest-growing county in the entire state of Tennessee, you have to build school buildings. We opened five schools almost overnight in a 13-month window two years ago. We have to borrow money to build schools. We don’t have that kind of money lying around. You want to have the highest credit score possible to borrow money the cheapest possible. We are one of only two counties in Tennessee that has a Moody’s AAA bond rating. We manage our money correctly. None of us like debt, but when you are growing like we are, you are going to have some debt, and it has to be managed.
We can fund some of the school board requests, but not all of our debt and not all of our borrowing and not all of the dollars that we receive from our taxes can go to schools. Sixty-four percent of our total expenditures ($398 million), or $257 million, goes to schools, whereas $140 million goes to everything else, including courts, parks and recreation, law enforcement, the highway department, and our general operations representing 35 percent of budget. Schools get a large share, but quite frankly they probably have to have a large share because of the growth we are talking about.
We have had about a 5 percent increase over the last 10 years of the budget going to schools. It is a good number, and we have been managing it, but we can’t pour all money into public education; there are other things you have to serve to make a well-balanced community. Just like you can’t spend all of your money on your rent, you have to have some money left over for other things.
How would you respond to those who say that education is underfunded? At a recent “Let’s Talk Schools” series with Dr. Mike Looney, a parent said, “Please tax me … so that our children can reach their full potential.”
I don’t think schools are underfunded. I think we do an excellent job in getting money to our schools for the things that they need. A lot of people make the comparison that we pay less per child than the state average. Then I say, ‘We are doing a better job.’ I think the schools, the school board and school leaders are doing a heck of a job in educating our kids at less money than other school districts across the state. Although we do put a lot of our tax dollars into it, and we don’t just rely on state dollars.
I realize there are some people who would say tax me more, and there are some people who would say don’t tax me anymore. You have to live within your means. The number one recruiting tool for businesses and families is that we have some of the finer schools around — great public and private schools and home-school programs. There are so many things related to building a good quality of life that draw people to Williamson County — the schools, the economic development, and our tax rate is substantially less than surrounding counties. You have to have a low tax structure for businesses to move in and residents can afford. There’s something that we are doing correct. The things that we are not being successful in, we need to evaluate them. We work hard to make Williamson County a great place to live, play, work and worship. There are areas to improve, but we need to keep our eyes focused on the target of being the best county in the state of Tennessee.