County sales tax referendum slated for February ballot

By Lesley Jenkins
star staff

With uproar from citizens requesting a referendum for county-wide zoning, voters will be pleased to hear they can cast their vote to raise the sales tax in Carter County. It might not be the referendum many citizens hoped for, but at least registered voters can decide to raise the sales tax to 9.75 percent or not.
   Carter County commissioners suggested raising the local option sales tax rate from 2.25 percent to the maximum limit of 2.75 percent.
   Commissioner Jerry Pearman motioned to add the increase to the Feb. 10 ballot through a referendum to allow citizens to make the decision. The vote passed 15-6. Citizens must vote on a sales tax increase in a binding referendum, according to state law.
   Jason Cody, county finance director, said local officials discussed a raise in the sales tax during state budget talks when lawmakers informed county governments a raise in the sales tax could be mandated by the state and go directly into state coffers.
   However, if voters "choose" to increase the sales tax at the county level, the money will fall into Carter County.
   Cody said the .5-percent increase would produce approximately $700,000 for the county. The Carter County School System would receive $500,000 and the remaining balance would flow into the county's general fund. Since the budget this year was tight for the school system this money would help the schools make many needed improvements.
   He said this estimate did not include money the city of Elizabethton would receive.
   Cody expects the money to be used to help recruit industry back into the county and for other purposes to benefit the county's' citizens.
   Cody warned the state would probably pass the increase if the vote does not pass it locally. "It is not a possibility that it would be passed, it is more of a probability."
   Citizens often worry about tax increases, but with an increase into sales taxes instead of property taxes, every consumer bears the burden of a few extra cents, instead of only property owners being charged with property taxes.
   He said the decision voters are faced with should be based on whether or not they want their sales tax dollars to benefit the county directly instead of at the state level.
   Tracy Harris, administrator of elections, said Carter County has 29,286 registered voters as of Wednesday. When the last election, similar to the one in February, was held in March 2000, only 4,026 voters turned out to the polls.
   The $2,300 charge for the referendum pays for the legal costs associated for early voting, printing on the ballot, setting up the machines and tally sheets.
   Early voting begins Jan. 21 and continues through Feb. 5 at the election commission office in the courthouse. The last day to register in person is Jan. 9.