JASPER, Tenn. -- The Marion County Commission's plan to levy a wheel tax as a way to ease the burden that came with a 50 cent property tax increase in August 2011 has received plenty of skepticism leading up to the March 6 referendum.
Officials said the wheel tax will add a $50 registration fee for cars and $25 for motorcycles, and its revenue must be used to reduce the property tax rate during the next fiscal year.
"The philosophy of the majority of the members of the County Commission was that [the wheel tax] was an attempt to spread the burden among a larger group of people," Marion County Attorney Billy Gouger said. "Their belief is that it's in the best interest of the county."
Officials said 40 percent of county residents own property, but more than 80 percent own a vehicle.
Commissioner Louin Campbell, who consistently has opposed the wheel tax, said anyone who is renting property is paying property taxes.
"[The landlord] is including his property tax in that rent," he said in September. "You can bet your bottom dollar on that. I think it's time to start looking out for the poor people in the county instead of the people that have everything."
Gouger said he believes there is some truth to Campbell's statement.
"It's not a direct cost, though," he said. "It's an indirect cost, and that's a big difference."
Officials estimate the tax would generate $1.6 million per year, which would lead to a 26 cent reduction in the property tax increase.
"It was raised 50 cents [in August], so it would pretty much cut that down to about half of what the increase was," Gouger said.
In January, Commissioner Mack Reeves said he had been confronted by several constituents who believe the board later will raise the proposed wheel tax rate.
If the tax is approved, the board would be obligated to use the money to offset the property tax hike during the next fiscal year, officials said, but after that, it would have other options.
Gouger said the board selected the proposed rate for a good reason, and he doesn't think there are any plans to increase it.
"The amount of the tax itself was the subject of a lot of discussion," he said. "[The board] had to look at what they needed in order to generate the kind of revenue the county needs to survive."
If the wheel tax is not approved on March 6, Gouger said, the board will have to maintain the property tax levels "at or near where they are until the county is back on solid financial footing."
Gouger said he understands voters' cynicism.
"It's difficult to get people to vote for a tax on themselves," he said.
The county also must be prepared for state funding cuts that are looming in areas such as education, he said.
"All of that is kind of scary," he said. "I don't think anybody is going to be surprised if that's an issue that may have to be dealt with in the next year or couple of years."
Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.