On commissioners’ voting agenda Wednesday:
* Spending $11,338.89 to pay back property taxes and penalties on three properties owned by the 28th Community Development District so the properties eventually can be transferred to veterans;
* Accepting a $104 million bid from Dillard Construction Inc. for a 47,100-square-foot addition and renovation at Sale Creek Middle High School, including new classrooms, science labs and more;
* Awarding discretionary funding of $1,000 to the Chattanooga Boys Choir and $2,500 to Hamilton County Special Tactics and Rescue Services from Commissioner Chester Bankston’s fund
A proposed $15,000 grant to ArtsBuild at the Hamilton County Commission meeting on Wednesday veered sharply off topic when a commissioner unveiled a proposal by the nonprofit to try to adopt a 20-cent-per-pack cigarette tax to fund local arts programs.
Commissioner Tim Boyd asked colleagues at Wednesday's agenda session to support a grant from his discretionary fund to the nonprofit's Community Cultural Connection grant. ArtsBuild President Dan Bowers was there to tell commissioners how the grants fund multicultural and varied community programs for all ages.
"We've become a much more diverse community over the last 20 years," Bowers said.
Commissioner Joe Graham asked for more public discussion of a proposal ArtsBuild recently had pitched privately to a majority of commissioners.
Cultural and civic organizations' funding has been strained by the Great Recession and community leadership changes. ArtsBuild suggested commissioners ask the county's legislative delegation for a private act authorizing a countywide vote whether to adopt a tax on cigarettes.
Graham had multiple objections — from the proposal initially being made in a private meeting to the unfairness of taxing cigarettes but not other tobacco products, to the harm the tax would do to people and small merchants in his district and his constituents' overall dislike of tax hikes.
"We're not California; we don't govern by referendum," Graham said. "There's absolutely no way in the world I'll ever support this."
He also was upset about who would get to decide where the money would go. ArtsBuild proposed forming an art commission that would receive the revenue and dole out grants. And he hates the idea of setting a precedent for other 501(c)(3) organizations.
Boyd said Graham was changing the subject, and that his discretionary appropriation had nothing to do with the cigarette tax proposal.
"I'm sorry that discussion came up this morning, it just confuses the issue," Boyd said.
He also noted that a hotel-motel tax passed years ago to support tourism now brings in about $6 million a year and helps the community reap $1 billion in tourism-related spending.
"I think we should keep a very open mind" about a cigarette tax, Boyd said. After the meeting, he said he didn't know how much such a tax would raise.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he'd heard from ArtsBuild and Graham about the idea, which has not been formally presented to elected officials.
McCormick noted it would take a supermajority vote — six of the nine commissioners — to actually authorize a countywide referendum even if the delegation obtained the private act allowing it.
"Anytime the County Commission has a supermajority to ask us to do something, we would consider it very seriously and tend to try to do what they want us to do," McCormick said Wednesday afternoon.
But, he added, "That doesn't mean we would automatically do that without any more thought going into it."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.