By Kathleen Baydala Staff Writer
Hamilton county commissioners' vote on the recent property tax increase could be an issue that will either hang them or help them as incumbents in next year's elections, local political officials said.
Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Bobby Wood said Republican commissioners who voted for the tax increase will have to defend their votes and could face potential challengers in the primary. Those who voted for the increase were Richard Casavant, Larry Henry and Charlotte Vandergriff.
"Without a doubt, there will be some fallout for that," Mr. Wood said. "That was not a traditional Republican vote."
But Gary Starnes, president of the local Pachyderm Club, said moderate Republican voters are not likely to vote out commissioners who supported higher taxes.
Dr. Casavant, Ms. Vandergriff and Mr. Henry will have school construction projects in their districts as a result of their tax vote, and voters will see the value in the increase, Mr. Starnes said.
"That will help them get over it," he said.
Stuart James, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said Democratic challengers will take aim at Republican incumbents who voted against the property tax increase. He said the three Republican commissioners who voted against the increase - Chairman Fred Skillern, Bill Hullander and Curtis Adams - did not articulate sound reasons for their vote and "will be called out."
"We're going to tell the public (the passage of the tax increase) was a bipartisan vote for jobs and education, and that those voting 'no' had no good reason," Mr. James said.
"Mr. Hullander mentioned the war and rising gas prices, but the war and rising gas prices have been caused by Republican leadership in Washington (D.C.)," he said.
Democrats defending their seats can expect similar treatment, Mr. James said.
"I think the Republican Party, particularly the conservative element, will spin Democrats as liberal taxers and those Republicans who voted for the increase as traitors to Republican values," he said.
Commissioners voted 5-4 last week in favor of a 26-cent property tax increase that is expected to generate more than $16 million annually for county services and public schools. The additional funds are divided with 10 cents for county services, and 16 cents for the county school system.
When he ran in 2002, Mr. Henry said in his campaign literature he believed county tax dollars could be used to obtain a fair salary for teachers in county schools.
"I think with this increase we can do that," he said Friday.
Mr. Henry also said he is confident that his vote represented the desires of most of the constituents in his district.
"I think they understand it and will find it positive overall," he said.
John Bailes, who announced in June his plans to run against Mr. Adams in District 8, said education is the heart of his campaign. He said he intends to focus a great deal of effort on educating voters on the tax vote. "I understand he has a personal problem with (Hamilton County Schools Superintendent) Jesse Register and the school board, but why not vote 'yes' on the amendment for county services?" Mr. Bailes said.
Mr. Adams, who will be running as a Republican for the first time, said he does not plan to stump aggressively on his notax stance. Instead, he said he will let his record and reputation speak for him.
"I have 18 years on the commission. Either (voters) like me or they don't," Mr. Adams said. "People already know where I stand on most every subject."
The commissioners' stand on taxes likely will have voters' attention during the upcoming election, said Richard Wilson, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and former county election commission administrator.
"I think people don't like to have taxes increased," he said. "So anything that deals with their money, they're likely to pay attention to."
For incumbent commissioners who voted for the tax increase, the base of their voter support will be people who saw a direct benefit from the increase, such as teachers or county employees, Dr. Wilson said. But once the voting population expands, it dilutes the impact those votes have.
"It may mean there will be a higher percentage of people opposed to a tax increase who turn out to vote, and that's an added risk for commissioners who voted for the tax increase," he said.
David Edwards, an associate professor of political science at UTC, said he does not expect a shake-up on the commission.
"Those commissioners who voted for the tax increase may see no trouble at all during re-election because their constituents will be happy with the school (projects) in their districts," he said.
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