Budget Committee: Property tax increase plus a wheel tax?

By Lesley Jenkins
star staff

After nearly three hours of debate about how to best fund capitol projects, what areas need the most money, and a potential wheel tax, the Carter County Budget Committee meeting ended abruptly Tuesday night with a motion to table a proposed property tax rate and adjourn until next week so that commissioners can hear from constituents.
   Commissioner Lawrence Hodge made a motion to set the proposed property tax rate at $2.69 per $100 of assessed value and to initiate a wheel tax of $25, capped for 20 years. Commissioner Jeff Treadway seconded the motion.
   This proposed tax rate would have included funding for a 3 percent raise for county employees, health insurance and retirement benefits increases, jail cost overruns of $500,000, operating cost increases, and a jail staffing increase. The $25 wheel tax would have funded a capitol project fund earmarked for a long-term solution for the overcrowded Carter County Jail, i.e. a new facility, funding for the school project, and for land acquisition for economic development.
   Funds derived from the wheel tax would be divided at a later date, since no specification was made in the motion, except for earmarking the dollars to capitol projects.
   What the tax rate increase and wheel tax would not fund would be increases to outside agencies and salary adjustments.
   Before a roll call vote was taken, Commissioner Tom "Yogi" Bowers made a motion to table the motion and adjourn the meeting in order to better poll commissioners' constituents in their respected districts and meet again next week on Tuesday, June 8 at 6 p.m. The motion to table passed unanimously.
   Implementing a wheel tax can be done in three ways. The first would require that the County Commission pass a private act, ratifying it with a two-thirds vote and then sending it to the legislature for approval. However, this is not an option with current state representatives who have informed the commission they will not take private acts to the legislature, according to County Mayor Dale Fair.
   The second alternative is to pass the motion in two separate regular commission meetings with a two-thirds majority, or 16, votes. Citizens can file a petition with the county's election office for a referendum using 10 percent of the votes from the previous governor's election to force that a referendum be placed on the November 2004 ballot.
   The third option is for the commission to have a referendum by private act and let the citizens vote to implement the tax.
   The only other item that was proposed on Tuesday was a motion to set aside a litigation tax to fund the judge's salary. This tax will be included in the court costs of each case found guilty. The litigation tax will free up $.02 on the property tax rate.
   Almost two and a half hours of discussion brought the committee to the $2.69 property tax rate and wheel tax combination, which will be brought up at the next meeting.
   Commissioner John Lewis said against the wheel tax, "Gas is gone up. Insurance is gone up. Food is gone up. A lot of people is laid off. We need to find out what my people (6th district residents) can afford. Our obligation is to the people who put us in this office."
   Commissioner Wayne Holtsclaw replied there are over 50,000 registered vehicles in the county and approximately 25,000 property owners. "These 25,000 property owners are carrying the whole load of the county." He told of his own personal property taxes and how his would increase more than $1,000 over last year if the $2.69 property tax is approved. However, if the wheel tax is approved he would only be paying $300 for the 12 vehicles that he owns and operates a business with.
   "I'd be better off with a wheel tax than a property tax increase," Holtsclaw said.
   At one point commissioners discussed the possibility of funding all the requests and $16 million for a new jail and $16 million for the school project. This option would send the property tax rate to $3.23, an increase of $1.01 from the current rate. However, this scenario does not include a wheel tax.
   If commissioners decide to fund the $32 million for the jail and schools with a wheel tax/property tax combination, the tax rate could be set at $2.69 with a $54 wheel tax.
   Despite all the discussion, the committee did not set a proposed tax rate and will reconvene next Tuesday after holding town meetings in their districts.