Locals react to sales tax vote

Photo by Lesley Jenkins
County Mayor Dale Fair reviews the early voting tallies which were released shortly after 8 p.m. when polls closed.

By Lesley Jenkins
star staff

   The voters have spoken and unofficial results reveal an additional one-half percent sales tax increase is not welcome in Carter County and the city of Elizabethton.
   7,494 voters cast their vote on whether or not to increase the county's sales tax in Tuesday's primary election, with 4,547 voting against and 2,284 voting in favor of the increase.
   Early votes were released shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m. The early numbers revealed that 64 percent were opposed to the additional half-cent on the dollar increase, from 2.25 to 2.75 percent.
   County Mayor Dale Fair said, "Usually you can tell by the early vote. It is usually fairly close. At least the voters got a chance to decide. The voters had a chance to preempt the state.
   "It's a proven fact that it is hard to get people to vote for a tax increase -- any form -- wheel tax, sales tax, etc.," Fair added.
   A county or city sales tax increase must be approved by a referendum and cannot be imposed directly by a vote from the county commission.
   "I think it is prudent that the commission put it on the referendum. The commission did what they were supposed to. The voters did have a chance," Fair said.
   The County Commission voted 15-6 in November to put a sales tax increase to a referendum when local lawmakers informed county governments a raise in the sales tax could be mandated by the state.
   If the commission waited longer than the November meeting, the deadline would have passed and voters would not have had the opportunity to decide the fate of the increase.
   City Manager Charles Stahl said, "It was presented to the voters as an alternative to some action the state might take." He added that the commission was concerned about the possibility that, if the tax increase wasn't passed at the county level, but was approved by the state, the additional revenue would completely bypass Carter County and the city of Elizabethton.
   State Representative Jerome Cochran said state officials have not discussed the option of capturing the unclaimed optional sales tax. He added, "But the way the governor is spending money right now, nothing is off the table. If they (the state) needed more money, it would be a tempting option." If the sales tax comes before the Legislature, Cochran said he would vote against an increase. He also said he would support additional revenue generated by a sales tax increase going into county coffers.
   Cuts were made by the state at the city and county level during the last year. Seven percent of state-shared revenue was cut from the city while the county suffered a three percent reduction.
   "The passage would have gone to replace that loss and to generate more revenue. It would have gone to the general fund and would have been replacing revenue that has been reduced during these recesssionary times. We certainly could have benefited from the additional funds," Stahl said.
   Carter County Finance Director Jason Cody estimates the one-half percent increase would have produced approximately $700,000 for the county.
   The city's finance department initially estimated the city stood to receive more than $1 million in new sales tax revenue. City administration has since amended that figure to $533,000. Stahl said the original projection was based on calculations of a city-only local option increase not effective in the county.
   The Carter County School System would receive $500,000, and Elizabethton City Schools would see an additional $200,000 if the referendum receives approval.
   City government has sliced spending by more than 10 percent the past two years. Budget cuts have denied the city's roughly 200 employees pay raises and forced spending cuts across the board for city departments.
   The Election Commission office reported Tuesday there were 29,372 registered voters eligible to vote in the primary on Feb. 10.
   Stahl added a sales tax increase ultimately factored out as less of a cost to taxpayers than other county attempts at raising revenues such as the wheel tax plan of four years ago.