CLEVELAND, Tenn. — A proposed $32 wheel tax intended to fund major capital school projects divided candidates seeking seats on the Bradley County School Board and the Cleveland City Council at a political forum Thursday.
The Cleveland Lions Club and the Bradley County Bar Association sponsored the event, which was held at Lee University's Dixon Center.
The proposed wheel tax — assessed each time a vehicle is registered in the county — will appear on the Aug. 2 ballot as a referendum item for Bradley County voters. Candidate responses to the question of whether a wheel tax should be imposed evoked the strongest responses from the audience during the two-hour event.
The forum opened with five candidates from two contested nonpartisan school board races: Ben F. Atchley Jr., Laura Williams Mountain and Chris Turner, who are vying for the District 1 seat; and Melvin "Teddy" Bryson and Nicholas Lillios, who are contesting the District 5 seat.
"I support the students, and I support the teachers, but I do not support increasing our debt," Moutain said. "Students can't have everything they want when they want it."
"We've got to live within our means," said Turner, who also opposed the proposed wheel tax, stating that it was an example of unwanted "expansion of local government."
Bryson and Lillios said the decision has been put squarely with the voters and agreed that the Bradley County school system was underfunded. They urged voters to vote according to their consciences.
Atchley was the lone school board candidate to say absolutely he would vote for the wheel tax.
Four out of five candidates involved in two nonpartisan City Council races spoke at the forum: Tucker Johnston, Jonathan C. Porter, and incumbent Dale R. Hughes, who are in the race for District 5; and incumbent Avery Johnson, who is vying for the at-large seat. Johnson's opponent, William "Bill" J. Wheeler, did not attend the event.
"Our schools are bursting at the seams," said Johnson, who said he supported the tax initiative that would help city schools to reduce overcrowding.
Hughes said the money was needed for the schools, but that the voters have the privilege of making that decision.
"It's a necessary evil," said Johnston, who said he didn't like any kind of taxes. However, he said a "Plan B" should be in place in case the referendum fails.
Porter said he was not sure if a wheel tax or property tax increase is the answer. Planning might have made the situation easier, he said.
Thursday's forum was second of three. The next forum, which features U.S. congressional candidates, takes place at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Cleveland State Community College's Johnson Theater.