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Madison Mayor Paul Finley speaks on the city's growth at the joint meeting Oct. 30. (Record Photo/Kendyl Hollingsworth)

Madison City Council, Madison City Board of Education discuss maintaining school excellence with city growth

MADISON — Madison City Council and the Madison City Board of Education held a joint meeting Oct. 30 to discuss maintaining excellence and creating enough space for new students in the local school system in concurrence with the city’s rapid growth.

Representatives of Triana also attended the meeting.

The meeting began with a presentation from MCS Superintendent Robby Parker on the achievements of Madison City Schools, what is needed to keep up with the city’s growth and how to maintain a reputation of excellence while faced with these growth concerns.

SCHOOL GROWTH AND WHAT IT WILL COST

Madison City Schools is currently ranked the second-best school system in the state of Alabama right behind Mountain Brook. Parker explained that MCS has more than doubled from about 5,000 students at the system’s inception in 1998 to about 11,300 in the last month. Over the summer, MCS saw more than 400 new students enter the system, which is about 100 more than usual.

Since 1998, MCS has built five new schools and one pre-k center. Every school has seen additions in that timeframe as well with Horizon Elementary School being the sole exception, according to Parker.

In addition to being ranked second best in the state, MCS boasts an A+ grade on the Alabama Education score card in all areas, a nationally recognized arts program and consistent rating in the top 10 of every sport offered by AHSAA. This year, Bob Jones and James Clemens high schools also tied for the top spot in the state for having the most National Merit semifinalists.

With the city facing rapid growth in recent years, MCS will need to expand to accommodate all students and “maintain excellence.” This includes a new elementary school, a new middle school, more pre-k space, a performing arts space for middle schools, high school additions and safety/security additions. Parker noted that the high school additions will be needed at a minimum, but a new high school will likely also need to be built in the next few years if Madison’s population exceeds about 65,000.

To achieve this, Parker said Madison is proposing that residents pay an additional 12 mils in property taxes. MCS defined a mil as one-tenth of one penny. Currently, Madison has 27 mils of property taxes. Property (also known as ad valorem) taxes are calculated by multiplying the home’s assessed value by the millage rate. For example, a resident with a house appraised at $200,000 would pay $240 for 12 mils. This would break down to about 66 cents per day.

The 12 additional mils of property tax will cost residents an average of $254.16 per year. Of these 12 additional mils, 10 mils would pay for the new elementary and middle schools, one would pay for the high school additions and another would pay for new instruction programs and safety.

Parker also noted that as of today, Madison residents pay significantly less in property taxes than residents of each of the four other school systems ranked in the top five statewide.

“We’ve always had the ability to borrow from 1998 until 2018 … but we’re house poor,” Parker said. “We’ve spent all of our money on all of our houses, and we’re still paying that … our mortgage is $156 million … So, why now are we behind the 8 ball? Because we can’t borrow any more money, and we’re going to run out of room in two years.”

Parker said the next time they will be able to borrow money to build a school is 2034.

“We’ve looked at everything possible,” Parker added. “We’re looking at things and having to make decisions about things we’ve never had to make in 20 years—tough decisions—but I want you to know … we have been good stewards with your money, we’re being good stewards with your money now, and we will continue to be good stewards with your money.”

WHAT TO EXPECT WITH THE AD VALOREM TAX INCREASE

Woody Sanderson, board attorney, explained more about the ad valorem tax increase and shared some important dates.

“It’s very difficult to explain to people what an incredible bang for the buck that Madison has been getting, frankly, for your entire 20 years and that you continue to get today,” Sanderson said. “As great a bang for your buck as that is, it’s very easy to see this is just not sustainable … you’ve got growth continuing to come, but you’ve got no revenue, no borrowing capacity to build seats for people to sit in beyond what you’ve already got, and you wont for a number of years without some additional revenue.”

Sanderson said Alabama has a long history of making it difficult to raise property taxes, which continues to be the case today. An 11 mil increase passed around 1993-1994 contributed to more than anyone expected and sustained the city to this point in time.

This week, the board will consider a resolution requesting that the council propose a tax increase. At the Madison City Council meeting Nov. 13, a public hearing will take place where the public is invited to come and share their thoughts. Council meetings are held at 6 p.m. at 100 Hughes Road in the council chambers on the main level. Triana will also have a public hearing later on.

If the council passes the resolution after the hearing, the proposal will go to the legislature to obtain special legislation to authorize the placement of the tax increase on the ballot, which Sanderson said can only be done while the legislature is in session. They will be back in session in March 2019. Since 2019 is an off-year for elections, a special election will have to be called, which residents can expect to take place sometime between August and Oct. 1, 2019.

If the ad valorem tax increase is approved in fall 2019, the council can levy the increase in time for collection Oct. 1, 2020. The City will be able to proceed with construction shortly after approval on a bond issue, and Sanderson said the first new school funded with the tax increase could open as soon as August 2021.

“You can’t be assured that you can proceed until you know you have some borrowing capacity, and borrowing capacity is created by levying taxes,” Sanderson explained.

HANDLING THE CITY’S GROWTH

Madison Mayor Paul Finley noted that it is important to discuss wants versus needs, and he said growth assessment and a plan for handling that is a need.

“It’s the reality of where we are right now,” Finley said. “In schools, we’re down to (assessing) is what we’re talking about a need versus a want? There’s no question when you look at data that what we’re looking at is a need.”

Finley noted that businesses and people are continuing to come to Madison, as well as Huntsville, because the area has been successful with economic development. A Madison schools growth impact committee was put together about a year ago to determine expectations and plans moving forward. Finley noted that the city council has made decisions this year to invest about $500,000 in increasing school safety, and they have also already planned for a special election in their budget.

“We’ll be prepared to take care of it financially,” Finley said.

City Planner Mary Beth Broeren also presented the council’s most recent draft of their new growth policy for residential development, which Council President Tommy Overcash likened more to a growth “philosophy.” The draft contains seven policies, which are listed verbatim below:

  • Policy 1: The City supports development of new detached, low density, single family residential projects on property currently in the city limits and zoned for residential uses
  • Policy 2: The City supports active adult and senior independent living communities, i.e. age-restricted communities for older adults
  • Policy 3: Requests to re-zone property currently zoned for Agriculture use to R-1, R-1A, R-1B, R-1C (if established) or cluster zoning may be supported provided that protection of tree canopy/natural features and a phasing plan is incorporated into any development plan
  • Policy 4: Requests to re-zone property to RZ, R3, R3-A, or R4 zoning, regardless of density, will not be supported for detached single family development unless they are for single lots that are infill to an approved project or a project consistent with Policy 2.
  • Policy 5: The City supports limited development of new attached single-family or multi-family residential projects on property currently in the city limits and already zoned for such residential uses.
  • Policy 6: Property zoned or recommended for commercial or industrial development should not be supported to be rezoned to residential unless other significant City objectives are achieved.
  • Policy 7 (Property requesting annexation into Madison): The City supports annexation of property proposed to include residential development if it is three acres or less in size or is part of a strategic annexation, which is defined as an annexation that results in a meaningful increase in commercial land inventory, preserves the City’s ability to annex other potential commercial land, or includes property that will be offered and suitable for public facilities such as schools, critical infrastructure, fire stations, etc.

R zones referred to in the draft indicate the following: R-1 zones are low density residential districts, R2 is medium density residential districts, RZ is zero lot line residential districts, R3 is high density residential districts, R-3A is single-family detached residential districts, and R4 refers to multi-family residential districts.

The draft also stated that the City reserves the right to modify these policies as circumstances warrant.

A draft of the City’s plan for implementing the growth policy was also included in Broeren’s presentation, with two ongoing actions listed:

  • Development agreements may be recommended for projects consisting of more than 100 units in the layout plan, multi-family units, age-restricted projects, large annexations or those involving public facilities.
  • Staff will track all residential projects and provide an annual report to the City Council and Planning Commission on unit count, as well as track this in Planning Commission staff reports for new residential projects.

The actions also included two recommended zoning ordinance amendments. The first recommends the following: evaluate low density zoning categories and determine if a new category is needed or existing ones should be modified; require a minimum 20 percent of usable open space for all new subdivisions requesting R-1A, R1-B, R-2 or similar with the consideration of an in-lieu fee option; require a mixed use component for any request for multi-family housing with consideration given for existing, adjacent commercial area that provides for a mixed use environment; establish standards for independent senior housing; and establish more up-to-date mixed use standards that reflect current city preferences and updated development standards.

The second amendment would require that “all annexation applications requesting residential zoning/development for an annexation area that is greater than three acres include a conceptual plan identifying proposed uses and density” as well as a fiscal analysis to evaluate the budgetary impact the conceptual project may have on the city.

One more implementation action recommended that the City of Madison evaluate the adoption of an impact fee to offset the cost of public facilities needed to serve the city’s residents and businesses.

Broeren said the City is interested in seeing lower density growth moving forward, and they are open to strategic annexation regardless of the property’s size. Ranae Bartlett, president of MCBOE, said this growth policy is helping the city’s pace of growth, which is in turn helping MCBOE to handle and plan for school growth.

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