CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Bradley County voters overwhelmingly rejected a wheel tax Thursday.
With all 17 county precincts reporting, plus early and absentee votes, more than 75 percent of voters cast ballots against the $32 levy, according to the Bradley County Election Commission's unofficial count.
The county election commission will meet Monday to certify the results. Bradley voter turnout Thursday, plus early voting, was 25 percent.
"The taxpayers are sending a message to government that you have to tighten your belt just as we have to tighten ours," said County Commissioner Ed Elkins, a wheel tax opponent.
He said the county school system made a mistake by using insurance money from the 2011 tornado damage to tear down tornado-struck Blue Springs Elementary and to buy a new school site.
"The school system, without any idea where the money was coming from, went ahead and did that," Elkins said.
Wheel tax advocates said the revenue would fund an addition at Walker Valley High School, a new academic building at Lake Forest Middle School and a replacement for Blue Springs Elementary.
City school board members said the city's share would fund a new elementary school.
"We need the projects the wheel tax would support," county schools Director Johnny McDaniel said Wednesday.
But some county commissioners, and county Republican Party leaders, opposed the tax. They argued the tax was not about education but about creating a new revenue source that would expand the county's ability to take on more debt.
Commenting after the early returns Thursday, county school board member Troy Weathers said the tax never had much of a chance.
"It's very difficult for anyone to vote themselves a tax," he said. "We knew it would be uphill.
"We will have to go back to the County Commission now and restate our needs," Weathers said. "The people have spoken, and that's the way it should be. But it does not replace the need that's still there. The County Commission knows that because they placed it on the ballot.
"I just hope we don't have a lot of trailers [portable classrooms] at our schools now," Weathers said. "And that's what will happen if nothing is done. We have to meet BEP. We have to meet state standards. We will do whatever is needed for our kids."
Opponents were upset that both city and county schools appealed for the tax on their marquee signs during the summer. State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Cleveland, announced earlier this week he will introduce legislation to ban such messages on school signs, as they now are banned on state property.
"Bradley County is still a conservative county," said Rodney West, an active campaigner against the wheel tax, after the early votes were reported. "I am very relieved."
West said, however, that voters need to remember two years from now that it was the County Commission that put the referendum on the ballot.
Except for two commissioners, Elkins and Mel Griffith, who voted against calling the referendum, the others should be "fired" by the voters, West said.
Griffith said he campaigned against the wheel tax and voted against calling the referendum.
"The tax rate has been set for this year," he said. "So it wouldn't be possible to do anything until next year."
But he said he thinks there will be no mood next year for a tax increase.
"The school system is just going to have to wait for the tax base to grow," he said.
Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...