The Franklin County Commission voted down the fiscal year 2023 budget Monday due to concerns expressed about the School System’s plans to build an activities center on the Franklin County High School campus.
The School System has approved its budget with no additional money requested from the county.
The $4.41 million for the activities center has been appropriated by the School Board from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds the system has been receiving from the federal government. Through the ESSER program, school systems have received subgrants to address the impacts COVID-19 has had on K-12 students, educators and families.
The commission downed the budget in a 12-4 vote.
Commissioners Johnny Hughes, Helen Stapleton, Gene Snead Jr. and Adam Casey were in favor of approving the budget. Commissioners Barbara Finney, Michelle Earle, David Eldridge, Angie Fuller, Glenn Summers, David Kelley, Lydia Curtis Johnson, Carolyn Wiseman, Scottie Riddle, Dale Schultz, Greg King and Eddie Clark were in opposition.
The commission, however, amended the 2022 budget to include pay raises for employees and increases for bus drivers.
Commissioners also approved a resolution to use the certified tax rate received from the state. The tax rate last year was at $2.87 per $100 in property valuation.
The county has undergone a property appraisal with property values increasing substantially.
The certified tax rate, which will raise the same amount of revenue as last year, was adjusted to $1.87.
Eldridge questioned whether the School System could use ESSER funds for an activities center because the money has been earmarked for COVID relief.
Stanley Bean, director of schools, said the activities center would have COVID-related benefits because it would have ample space to promote social distancing and fits under that category.
Bean, Chris Hawkersmith, coordinated school health director, and Eric Vanzant, Campora Family Resource Center director, addressed the commission about how they deem the activities center would benefit the community.
Hawkersmith said that in addition to offering athletic options for students, many other activities that would benefit the community would be provided, such as craft fairs, school science fairs, Special Olympics, book clubs, a meeting place for organizations, exercise and mental health classes and a band-practice area.
“There are just so many opportunities for a place like this,” he said. “We are excited about it.”
Vanzant asked the commissioners how many of them grew up in Franklin County with most raising their hands.
He asked them to think about an age-old problem where youths have nothing to do. He added that an activities center would give youths a myriad of activities that would benefit them as they grow into adulthood.
“What would you have liked to have seen?” Vanzant asked the commissioners about when they were young with the same problem — nothing to do.
“A lot of kids are hurting for something to do,” he said. “We can address that.”
Several commissioners said they had heard minimally about the center other than it could be used for athletic events.
Bean told the commission that the Herald Chronicle had published two full-scale articles about the center’s scope and how it would be used.
Eldridge said a concern he has is that if the commission approved the budget and the School System proceeded with the activities center, the county might be liable to pay back the $4.41 million. He added that he answers to 42,000 Franklin County residents and most he’s talked to have been against the activities center.
Although federal COVID-relief funds can’t be used for payroll compensation, Eldridge said the School System could use money the board approved for the activities center to go toward the system’s energy-saving partnership with Trane Technologies Inc., which would free up other money to pay employee raises.
The School System has agreed through the partnership to pay $350,000 per year for 10 years to make efficient heating, air conditioning and lighting upgrades at the system’s schools to capitalize on large-scale energy savings. The School System spends about $1.5 million annually on those energy costs.
The downside to using ESSER funds for the utility upgrades is that the School System would be giving up the activities center.
Eldridge said he is against using ESSER funds for the activities center because the money could be used elsewhere that would be more beneficial to Franklin County taxpayers. He added that increasing the School System’s budget means that the taxpayers will have to continue funding the additional amount, according to state maintenance-of-effort statutes.
Clark and Earle questioned how much it would cost to operate and maintain the activities center. Clark said utility costs for a larger facility would be expensive.
With the budget defeated, County Mayor David Alexander said it will be sent back to the School Board to reconsider. The School System has 10 days to respond back to the commission, and the commission has an Aug. 31 deadline to approve it.
Alexander said that if the School System and the County Commission can’t reach an agreement, the State of Tennessee will have the final say and set the budget.
Snead said he believes the County Commission has overstepped its grounds. He said he thinks it could be against the law for the commission to tell the School Board how to spend its money when the School System is not asking for any additional revenue from the county.
“If it’s not illegal, it’s highly unethical,” he said.