After a year of debating raising taxes to fund Hamilton County Schools, the county commission on Wednesday morning shot down a resolution to put it to a public vote.
Legislation to put a $60 annual vehicle, or "wheel," tax on the next county ballot to benefit teacher pay failed in a 5-3 vote after a heated debate about growth, trust and public interest.
Commissioners Chester Bankston, of District 9; Tim Boyd, of District 8; Randy Fairbanks, of District 1; Greg Martin, of District 3; and Sabrena Smedley, of District 7, voted against the resolution, while Katherlyn Geter, of District 5; Warren Mackey, of District 4; and resolution sponsor David Sharpe, of District 6, voted to save it.
Some commissioners cited this summer's failed attempt to increase property taxes to benefit schools in their opposition, saying the school board "used" teachers to angle for more funding.
"There's no one that values teachers more than I do. I am in schools in District 7 on a regular basis, I try to meet with teachers to support them, but I am sick and tired of the teachers being used as bait and switch," District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Smedley said. "That's what happened during the entire  budget process."
Boyd took it a step further, doubling down on his previous claim that he "doesn't trust" the school board with additional funding.
Notably frustrated by the familiar dialogue of his peers, Sharpe gave an uncharacteristically heated charge to the commission, condemning the perceived lack of "will" on the commission.
"This is a real issue that we need to address, and if we don't have the will on this commission, it is wrong, wrong, for this commission to deny the people of Hamilton County the right to make that decision for themselves," Sharpe yelled. "We are denying them the democratic process for which this country was founded."
The resolution, if passed, would have put a referendum to establish a wheel tax on the ballot for the March 3, 2020, primary election. It would have collected taxes on more than 285,000 vehicles in Hamilton County, equaling $17 million in additional revenue. If citizens voted to approve the referendum, as drafted in the resolution, the tax collected from vehicles, motorcycles and motor-operated bikes and scooters that are regularly used for transportation on public roads would have gone toward raises of about 6.7% for Hamilton County educators.
Sharpe continued to say he empathizes with constituents who have trouble making ends meet, but said the commission would have to address education funding anyway.
"When are we going to do this?" Sharpe asked. "This isn't about me; it isn't about anybody in particular - this is simple. This is about being able to recruit and retain high-quality teachers to improve our department of education to fulfill the needs the industry is demanding, and to allow the people of Hamilton County to make that decision on their own."
Despite a number of opposing commissioners expressing concerns about studying the referendum and Martin calling for it to go to committee last week, the same five commissioners voted against Sharpe's motion to send it to committee for further study on Wednesday morning.
Martin said after the meeting that he had supported sending the resolution to the education committee last week, but did not vote to support sending it to the legal committee as discussed Wednesday. Martin went on to suggest the commission consider pinning the referendum to the November 2020 election and even look into applying a sunset clause to it, collecting the tax only until a specific date or goal was met.
Fairbanks said he could not bring a tax with a sunset clause to his constituents "with a straight face," because he does not believe the county would actually ever stop collecting the fee once it began.
With the commission opting out of sending the resolution to committee, there is no current official research or consideration of a wheel tax being conducted by the county.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @_sarahgtaylor.