The Bradley County Commission approved moving the renovation of Lake Forest Middle School a year closer with the first debt payment due no sooner than July 2016 during its meeting Tuesday.
Based on a resolution proposed by 2nd District Commissioner Connie Wilson, the money would be borrowed for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
The motion passed 8-6, the minimum needed for approval. Wilson had been absent at the last voting session where the issue was discussed.
This vote overturns an action taken by the County Commission at its last voting session in which July 2017 was approved for the LFMS renovation plan.
The resolution approves $18 million for the project — $12 million for LFMS and $6 million to cover the portion required to go to Cleveland City Schools.
Changing when the money would be borrowed brought concern from some commissioners.
“If we move this up a year, I don’t see another way of funding it than to do a tax increase. And I will not support a tax increase,” said 4th District Commissioner Charlotte Peak-Jones.
Third District Commissioner Jeff Morelock said if the fund balance was increased at a slower rate than proposed, revenue would be available to borrow the needed funding. The county cannot borrow money for a project without consistent revenue designated to making the debt payments.
“The ideal time to do this is 2017-18, I agree with that; but that is a long way off in the future,” Morelock said.
He said he supported doing the project sooner.
“It’s going to be tight, but if you are going to build a school, it is going to be tight,” Morelock said.
Peak-Jones said approving the project a year sooner leaves no funding for possible emergency situations.
“It’s unfair, I think, to say that [moving] this up a year automatically sets you up for a tax increase. It should set you up for an evaluation of priorities — budgetary priorities,” said 4th District Commission J. Adam Lowe.
Lowe said the Commission needs to fund what it is required to fund before funding what it wants to fund.
Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis said it is important for the county to increase the percentage of operating expenses that it dedicates to the general fund balance.
“I’ve got to increase it before I go to the bond market. I have to show revenue to support the bonds, and I have to show the fund balance has gone up,” Davis said.
This fund is used to pay employee salaries when revenues have not come in yet. The county currently has to temporarily move money from another fund to cover salaries in September, according to Davis. The money is paid back when property tax revenue comes in.
Davis said Bradley County has a small fund balance compared to surrounding counties.
“We have never committed to a bond issue into the future. We have always based a bond issue on revenue we had,” Davis said.
The resolution states that input from the county mayor and finance director would be used to determine how the money could be borrowed.
Davis said he and finance director Lynn Burns had already determined July 2017 would be the best time.
Seventh District Commissioner Bill Winters pointed out that this Commission would not be completing the project because there would be an election between now and 2016. Fifth District Commissioner Jeff Yarber said a future Commission could vote not to borrow the money. Eight votes is all it would take, he added.
The proposed project would replace the numerous classroom buildings spread out across the Lake Forest campus with a two-story academic building. Core buildings, such as the cafeteria and library, would be retained and renovated to correct moisture and roof issues. Some roof work has already been designated as needed this year. The work was approved by the Bradley County Board of Education.