Voters say no to wheel tax

By Stephen S. Glass
Star Staff

   A slow stream of voters turned out to precincts across the county Tuesday to vote on the wheel tax referendum. At the end of the day, the "nays" held sway -- casting 65 percent of the ballots.
   In all, 7,777 votes were punched. Of those 5,036 were against the tax; 2,734 were cast in favor.
   Most election officials said turnout was steady, but Election Commission Chairman Jerry Oliver said he was somewhat disappointed in the number of voters taking to the polls.
   "For something that could have cost people out of their own pockets, I'd say turnout wasn't good at all," Oliver said.
   Many of those who cast ballots in favor of the tax were school teachers.
   Nancy Gale Broyles, a teacher at Happy Valley Elementary, said that she voted in favor of the tax because she felt it was more fair to tax car owners than property owners, since more people own automobiles than houses.
   "I voted for the wheel tax because the county is in bad shape financially, and I believe they need the money," said Broyles. "I also voted for it because there are a lot of people living on rental property who are paying no tax. I figured $40 to register my car and my husband's car would be cheaper than paying increased property tax."
   A Hunter Elementary teacher who voted at T.A. Dugger Junior High also said that, as a teacher and a property owner, she would be voting against herself twice if she were to vote "no."
   "I don't like to vote in favor of any tax," she said. "But the [commissioners] say if we don't vote for the wheel tax, they're going to have to increase property tax next year. Besides, I know as much as anybody that the schools could use the money. Teachers certainly could use the money."
   With the wheel tax voted down, county and city schools will miss out on $560,000 in new revenue annually.
   Many of those of those who voted "no" said they simply were not going to vote for any tax. But some voted against the tax for other reasons.
   "I really hated to vote against this tax," said Howard Metcalfe.
   Metcalfe and his wife Betty voted at Cloudland Elementary in Roan Mountain.
   "The schools need the money; there's no doubt about that. But this is part of a bigger issue with the state, and until they get things straightened out in Nashville, I don't think it's going to do any good just slapping a Band-Aid on the problem here. We need something more, even if it means a state income tax," Metcalfe said.
   Other "no" voters were more pragmatic in their decisions. Many simply weighed the cost of the wheel tax against that of increased property tax.
   Tina Miller, a Hampton voter, said that she has two sons who are ready to begin driving this year.
   "I figure it would be easier to pay higher property tax than to pay $20 for every car we're going to have to register," Miller said.
   Many commissioners have said that a vote against the wheel tax was nothing more than a vote in favor of a property tax increase. Yesterday, however, some said there is another alternative commissioners need to consider.
   Commissioner Addie Hyder, who first made the motion to send the tax to the ballot box, said yesterday that it may be time for commissioners to look seriously at making cuts, even if they are painful to make.
   "I respect the people's decision," Hyder said. "But now I don't see how we can maintain services without raising property tax or making cuts. I think it's time we looked into making cuts to every office whether we like it or not."
   Commissioner Brad Green voted against sending the tax to referendum. Yesterday Green said he feels the time is overdue for slashing the budget.
   "As we come to the end of the year, cuts may be coming," Green said. "They won't be easy to make with everybody's budgets as tight as they are -- we're pretty much down to bare bones as it is -- but I think it's what we need to do."