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Staff file photo / The Hamilton County Commission meets on June 5, 2019.

Updated at 3:56 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, with more information.

After a year of "vibrant debate" about raising taxes to fund Hamilton County Schools in the name of public interest, the county commission may let the public decide.

resolution to put a $60 annual vehicle or "wheel" tax on the next county ballot to benefit public schools will come before the Hamilton County Commission on Oct. 16.

The resolution, if passed, would put a referendum to establish a wheel tax on the ballot during the March 3, 2020, primary election. It would collect taxes on more than 285,000 vehicles in Hamilton County, equaling $17 million in additional revenue.

If citizens voted to approve the referendum, as currently 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 go toward raises of about 6.7% for Hamilton County educators.

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Commissioner David Sharpe's comment on 'wheel tax' resolution

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The resolution, which comes just months after the commission narrowly shot down a property tax rate increase to benefit schools, was discussed for the first time at the agenda-setting meeting Wednesday, where the group members raised several concerns about the tax.

Most notable, opposition to the referendum came from conservative commissioners who fear that holding the vote during a primary election would skew voter turnout, those concerned with the potentially lofty fee of $60 and those who questioned the commission's ability to earmark the potential revenue for the specific purpose of giving raises educators.

 

Here's where each commissioner stands on the potential tax a week before it goes before the commission for a vote:

–– District 1 Chairman Randy Fairbanks expressed qualms about the wheel tax but ultimately determined that, despite his authority to keep the resolution off the agenda, the commission will hear it during next week's voting meeting.

"I would like for us to move cautiously on this. That's just my recommendation," Fairbanks said. "Going through the budget process that we just went through recently, like several of us had said, we heard from a whole lot of constituents of ours. I just feel like a problem people might have with this is saying 'hey, in the past I had to worry about [the commission] going up on one tax, which would be property tax, but now I've got two taxes I've got to worry about."

Fairbanks expressed concern about the seemingly steep tax, citing seniors who drive but have comparatively modest incomes.

–– District 2 Commissioner Chip Baker, who will not be in town to vote on the resolution, said he believes the resolution needs to be further researched before a referendum is established.

"I heard comments about the wheel tax needing to be studied further, and I would agree because I question the timing and the amount," Baker said. "This definitely needs to be more thoroughly vetted."

–– District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin initially called for the resolution to go to a committee to be studied, citing concerns about the date of the referendum, the amount of the tax and the designation of the funds.

Fairbanks was concerned that if the issue was sent to committee not as many members of the public would have access to the discussion and ultimately approved the resolution on next week's agenda, foregoing the committee.

Martin also credited District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe, who introduced the resolution, for a sincere dedication to his cause of raising taxes, calling him "true blue" and admiring his "integrity" even though the two do not agree on the issue.

–– District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey strongly supported the resolution, calling for the commission to let the public decide.

"Once again, I think the best discussion on this is at the dinner table where these people live. Let them make up their minds," Mackey said. "It's really clear what the resolution states. We want to meet here? No. Let the people meet at their dinner table and come out and vote."

–– District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter supported the resolution but expressed concern about some of the inflammatory comments by fellow commissioners.

"I'm kind of taken aback by some of the comments up here today, but I just want to say that I definitely agree with Commissioner Sharpe and Commissioner Mackey in the sense that this issue is one that is important and is one that I think deserves the right for citizens of Hamilton County to make," Geter said. "We were very appreciative of the voices and information raised during budget season. A lot of people spoke up and, had they not, I don't think we would have had the richness of the conversations and discussions we had around education."

–– District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe defended the concerns of other commissioners, calling for them to give the control of the decision to constituents.

"Over the past year or more, there has been a lot of debate with regard to appropriate levels of funding and pay rate for educators we had a vibrant debate here on this dais. There is obviously very strong opinions on both sides of this argument this resolution is simply to answer the question 'where do our constituents truly lie? What do they feel about how we support and compensate educators?'" Sharpe said Wednesday. "I can think of no better way of getting to the bottom of that question than taking it directly to the public and allowing them to speak at the ballot box."

–– District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Smedley said she supports a referendum theoretically but wants more time to make sure the best referendum is put on the ballot.

"First of all, I want to say that I fully support and believe in giving all the voters a choice on the ballot. I'm all for it. I said during the budget process, 'Let's put this on a referendum,'" Smedley said. "I do agree with my fellow commissioners that to put this on the March ballot is probably too soon. I don't think that coming up on the heels of a budget that we just got through we've had time to fully vet what all our options are. If we're going to let the voters decide — which I support 100% — I would like to give the voters more options."

–– District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd opposed the resolution and questioned the motive behind Sharpe's persistence on the issue.

"I must give credit to Commissioner Sharpe for his continued efforts, tireless efforts really, to increase taxes for the schools as a part of the agenda of [local education nonprofit] UnifiEd, which helped place him on this bench," Boyd said. "I don't trust the school board one iota managing any additional taxes. They have proven to us this last spring by coming to us begging for a property tax to give teachers a salary increase and what happened? They reneged on that whole narrative."

Boyd also asked for the county clerk to provide data showing that 17 other counties in the state had wheel taxes of $60 or more, and he said that if a wheel tax is imposed he will be pushing for the revenue to go to the county budget rather than schools.

–– District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston did not weigh in during the meeting, but told the Times Free Press Tuesday that he "always said that I support a wheel tax over a property tax so that you get everyone, but in reading this resolution, I just don't know about a $60 wheel tax."

The resolution will be voted on at 9:30 a.m. at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Georgia Avenue on Oct. 16.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at staylor@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @_sarahgtaylor.

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