City leaders’ long list of projects outpaces the available funding

By Kevin Walters | The TENNESSEAN

After months of planning how they’ll spend about $4 million, Franklin city aldermen haven’t made up their minds about which of the most important projects they need to tackle first.

While aldermen this week (Jan. 14, 2014) got a refresher on the capital projects, including their wish list for new fire stations and making road improvements, the list of potential projects continues to grow.

Faced with a smaller-than-typical budget, some city aldermen broached a topic that hasn’t been seriously discussed in more than 20 years: raising the city’s property tax rate.

Two aldermen — Margaret Martin and Pearl Bransford — are saying that Franklin can draw more money to spend on more projects if the city’s property tax rate increases. Franklin’s property tax rate hasn’t budged from 37 cents per $100 of assessed value since it was last increased in 1987.

“We think we’re smart, (but) we’re not smart,” Martin said. “It is a very — in my opinion — a very stupid move to be proud of not raising taxes when we’ve got all this before us, and all these things need to be done. And they’re not going to fall out of the sky, done. They’ve got to have money. We’ve got to have more money. Sales taxes just won’t do it.”

City putting $10 million toward pension fund

Part of the challenge for Franklin’s leaders is that they’re not going to spend as much this year on capital projects as they have in the past. 

Last year, Franklin leaders chose to make a $10 million payment this year toward its pension fund as its main expense, instead of pursuing a wide list of big-ticket projects.

Making that pension payment will allow the city to nearly fully fund its pension for eligible city employees and help Franklin maintain its good standing with bond rating agencies.

But the payment comes at the expense of not spending as much this year on capital projects.

Still, Franklin staffers want to address some needs, such as construction of Fire Station No. 8 in the Westhaven subdivision, Fire Station No. 7 in Berry Farms, restrooms at the Park at Harlinsdale Farm and the addition of a river walk along the Harpeth River, among other items.

But other, new potential construction projects have the attention of aldermen as well. That includes paying for a 2,800-foot portion of South Carothers Parkway from Truman Road to Parkworth Drive that Franklin officials recently discovered was omitted from plans presented by either the Highlands of Ladd Park developer or the city. City aldermen say they’ve heard recently from Ladd Park homeowners who are concerned about the project, but doing the work could cost the city $2.85 million.

“It flabbergasts me that we’ve got 2,800 feet when the price tag for the entire road is $10.2 (million),” Alderman Brandy Blanton said. “That’s, like, what? … I don’t like the $2.8 (million) price tag; I think that’s something we definitely have to look at seriously.”

The $2.8 million estimate includes heavy grading work, utility and design, said Paul Holzen, director of engineering for the city.

Yet Alderman Ann Petersen raised the possibility of Franklin contributing more money to the Mack Hatcher Parkway expansion project, when and if the state moves forward with expanding the parkway from where it ends at Hillsboro Road to Highway 96 West. Expansion of Mack Hatcher has been on hold for years because of the nearly $40 million cost of building a four-lane road.

Late last year state Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer proposed construction of a two-lane road that would cut the cost to $22.7 million by cutting out the amenities. State officials have not yet approved the two-lane plan. Franklin has already spent more than $5 million to purchase land for the future roadway.

“I can go with the two lanes if they’d just pay for it, but I know there’s some interest in picking up some of the amenities,” Petersen said.

Public input wanted on projects

All the talk about starting projects comes down to money. And Martin wasn’t alone in bringing up the idea of raising more money for the city to use on projects.

“We have immediate needs right now,” Bransford said. “I don’t know what citizens are feeling out there, but for us to meet these obligations, or these needs, right now, it’s going to take more than what we have in the bucket.”

But how much might taxes go up? Alderman Dana McLendon and staffers figured during the meeting that, all told, the city’s top five long-range projects would cost between $60 million and $70 million.

That could be funded by doubling the city’s property tax rate, he said.

“If you want to fund our top five projects right now in five years … and get them paid for in a timeline in which they could actually be done … you’re talking about doubling the tax rate,” McLendon said. “Do the math, and let me know how you feel.”

As far as moving forward, Bransford and other aldermen say they want public input on the list of projects that Franklin should next tackle in the coming year.

Potential projects

What are the top projects Franklin could take on this year? Franklin aldermen must finalize their list. Franklin staffers want to pair $4.2 million from the general fund with monies from its facilities tax fund and the hotel/motel fund.

The list of projects has not been finalized by city aldermen and staff, but here’s an overview of some of the projects that Franklin could choose from and which funds it will use to pay for it.

• Fire Station No. 8 (Westhaven): $3.05 million (facilities taxes)

• Fire Station No. 7 (Berry Farms):$3.05 million (Facilities Taxes)

• Design for widening a portion of Columbia Avenue (Downs Boulevard to Mack Hatcher Parkway):$821,500 (general fund)

• Design/building program for new City Hall: $1.55 million (general fund/facilities taxes)

• Franklin Road Streetscape Design (From Harpeth River bridge to Harpeth Industrial Court):$150,000 (general fund)

• Harpeth Riverwalk Design: $150,000 (general fund)

• Long Lane/Peytonsville Road (Land and easement acquisition): $1.4 million (general fund)

• McEwen Drive Phase IV: $340,000 (general fund)

• Restrooms at the Park at Harlinsdale Farm: $160,000 (general fund)

Source: The City of Franklin

The Tennessean/Jan. 17, 2014