published Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Marion County bypasses formalities, puts wheel tax on ballot

By Ryan Lewis/Correspondent
  • photo
    Marion County Mayor John Graham stands in front of the Marion County Courthouse.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Poll
Should Marion County have a wheel tax?

JASPER, Tenn. -- The Marion County Commission's plan to approve a wheel tax hit a brief snag last week when officials found that endorsing it might force the county to hold a costly special election.

County Attorney Billy Gouger said he met with Election Administrator Gary Reames last week, and they discovered a major flaw with the board's plan.

"The problem that has come up is there is no way that [the board] can control the timing of a referendum vote," he said.

Once the commission passes the tax on second reading, local residents have 30 days to petition the election commission for a vote on it, Gouger said.

"I think everybody anticipates that [a petition] will be filed," he said.

County commissioners had hoped the expected referendum vote would coincide with primary elections on March 6, 2012, but Gouger said the date of the vote depends on when the petition is received.

The election must be held at least 45 days and not longer than 60 days after the petition is received, he said.

"It could create a situation where the county would have to pay for a special election to vote on the issue of the wheel tax," he said.

That would cost more than $20,000, officials said.

To avoid a special election, commissioners voted to put the question on the March ballot, using the same language commissioners had considered. It includes a promise to reduce property tax rates by the amount the tax generates.

Commissioner Gene Hargis made the motion, saying he didn't want to take chances that could cost the county more money. The motion passed 13-2.

"We're very fortunate that we did find [this attorney general's opinion] out, so we would not be in violation if we proceeded the way we were going," County Mayor John Graham said. "I certainly don't want to incur an added expense for a special election."

Now that the wheel tax will be on the ballot, Commissioner Jane Dawkins said, there will be no need for the public to submit a petition on the issue.

"I think we're taking care of that part for sure," Commission Chairman Les Price said.

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryanlewis34@gmail.com.

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