Tight economy dashes dreams

Friday, June 5, 2009

As Marshall County's annual budget hearings began Thursday, hopes and dreams for better community standards and other government services are being set aside.

An example comes from the Joint Economic and Community Development Board and its discussions with town and county leaders who have been relying on a state planner for advice on planning, zoning and building codes.

Counties and municipalities across the state contract with the Division of Local Planning in the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development for an advisor. Professional planners help small governments that can't afford their own planning departments. If there were one major concern about that service here, it would center on a rotation of new, young planners who moved on to other jobs.

Lewisburg, the county and Chapel Hill have contracted with the state and usually get the same professional planner from TDE&CD, but cost cutting as well as stabilization of the advisor by hiring one person for this county alone appears to be out of reach.

"The reality is that the money is just not there," Planning and Codes Director Don Nelson said Wednesday of the goal set by the JECDB which had been discussed by the Board's executive director, Mike Wiles, on Tuesday night with several county commissioners.

A county wide planner who also serves municipalities could help the JECDB achieve a top goal of establishing a land use and transportation plan with regulations for housing subdivisions that are environmentally friendly. Conservation subdivision regulations are what they're called.

"The idea is to produce subdivisions that enhance the rural character of Marshall County with subdivisions you can be proud of," said Nelson who's hoped for more workshops so developers could realize how clustering homes in a hamlet could preserve open space, maintain the image of country life and provide better housing.

It's been a recent trend in planning and development, but it's hardly more than theoretical without subdivision regulations that could include incentives for developers, Nelson has noted. Meanwhile, the housing market is weak, just like revenues for the county.

The JECDB has other goals, but a planner's work is presumably addressing future issues while planning commissioners deal with applications for development under current regulations.

Still, steps are being taken to improve these kinds of services, Nelson said, adding that Dr. Ray Wakefield, chairman of the Marshall County Planning Commission wants better-informed commissioners.

Wakefield contends that planning commissioners should look at the land that's subject to plans being presented for approval, Nelson said.

It's not unusual. Rutherford County's planning staff presents a video recording of sites subject to zoning appeals board decisions, and Murfreesboro's Board of Zoning Appeals tours sites in a 15-passenger van provided by the city.

Hiring a planning officer to draft standards to protect open space and the country charm of Marshall County would appear to be out of reach given a disturbing revenue outlook received by commissioners on Tuesday from the JECDB executive.

This point is made by sales tax revenue figures in the first years of this decade. They dropped with the closure of International Comfort Products. Now, with Spring Hill's plant to be idle and the complete elimination of Sanford Corp. jobs here, there concern that revenue will drop next year like it did seven years ago.

Shortly thereafter, the county commission found it necessary to increase the property tax rate.

Knowing what that will generate as revenue for the county is a result of computations from the property assessor's office made with other county officials. It's needed for county budget hearings that started yesterday, but it's still early.

"We don't even know what the penny will bring on the tax rate," County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said on Wednesday morning. "Thursday (morning when budget hearings start) is just the start of a long process."

General directions to county department leaders were issued in December when it was clear the nation's economy was faltering.

Those officials were asked to start this year by being as fiscally conservative as possible so they would have money at the end of the year, Liggett recalled.

Nelson elaborated: At the end of the fiscal year, departments shouldn't be spending the rest of their money out of fear their budget would be cut. So, in-line with December's austerity directive, Nelson reports that with only one month to go in the fiscal year, his department has spent just under 60 percent of what was budgeted last summer for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Meanwhile, Liggett says it's up to the county commissioners to proceed as several announced last year; accept a 10 percent pay cut to set an example for all of the other county departments that have been asked to trim their budgets by 10 percent.