Are Hamilton County commissioners trying to tell Hamilton County residents that they don't want us to have any say — again — in how our money is spent?
Watch carefully, because that may well be exactly what some of them are tiptoeing around doing.
Come Wednesday, the commission will consider a resolution to let us decide at the ballot box in March whether to put a $60 annual vehicle or "wheel" tax in place to help fund schools.
If commissioners decide to let us decide, the resolution would put a referendum to establish a wheel tax on the ballot during the March 3, 2020, presidential primary election. And if citizens vote to approve the referendum, as currently drafted in the resolution, the tax collected from vehicles, motorcycles and motor-operated bikes and scooters would go to benefit salaries of Hamilton County Schools employees.
According to DataUSA, the average vehicle ownership in Hamilton County is two per household, meaning most home budgets would, in reality, have to allocate $120 a year toward our children's and grandchildren's public education.
Just a few months ago, these same county commissioners took a cowardly way out to deliver a de facto "no" vote on a property tax increase that would have cost the average county homeowner about $150 more a year to fund our woefully underfunded public schools.
That proposed property tax increase had the support of 61 percent of Hamilton County voters, according to a professional poll. Our commissioners knew that a majority of local voters supported the tax, and still they squelched it.
Instead of voting on a 34-cent property tax increase to add $34 million to a school system that had not seen an operating budget increase in 14 years, commissioners told the school board to come back later with a balanced budget.
The revenue from that proposed property tax would have funded a 5% raise for teachers and added about 350 additional positions and a laptop for every one of our 44,000 students.
Those same commissioners were outraged weeks later when — after the school board made the required cuts to balance its budget — one of the things lost was half of that 5% raise for teachers. Teachers would still get a 2.5 percent raise from state money specifically allocated for teacher raises. In addition, the Hamilton County Board of Education would give teachers and full-time school employees a one-time, $1,500 bonus in November. The school board also cut in half the number of new positions it would add.
But this past Wednesday, when commissioners discussed whether they would entertain the resolution to put a wheel tax for schools on the ballot, they were clearly riding their brakes.
"I would like for us to move cautiously on this," said Randy Fairbanks, District 1. Chip Baker, District 2, urged research and vetting. District 3's Greg Martin talked about "study" and "timing." Sabrena Smedley, District 7, said she supports a referendum but "the March ballot is probably too soon." Tim Boyd, District 8, wanted "data" and said if a wheel tax is imposed he wants the revenue to go to the county budget rather than schools. Chester Bankston, District 9, has indicated $60 is high.
What gives here? First these commissioners didn't want to raise our taxes to expressly fund a 5% raise for teachers and invest in our children's future. Then they were outraged when those 5% raises were cut in half. And now they're not sure they should even allow us an opportunity to up the raise they had claimed they absolutely favored.
District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe, who introduced the resolution, said the proposed tax gets to the heart of what "our constituents feel about how we support and compensate educators." District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey and District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter agreed with Sharpe and support the resolution.
If that sounds like a 6-3 vote against a wheel tax referendum on the March ballot, you counted right.
It's also a very partisan vote. The six are all Republicans. The three are Democrats.
Which brings us to the "timing" of a March referendum vote.
The opposition to the referendum is coming from conservative commissioners who are said to fear that holding the vote during a primary election would skew voter turnout. They threw in concerns of a "lofty" fee and earmarking the money. But it's all smoke.
In the March 2016 Hamilton County primary, 76,327 voters cast ballots. Nearly 68% of those ballot votes went to Republican presidential candidates in a crowded field. Less than 32% went to three candidates on the Democratic ballot.
Even if a Trump slump discourages Republicans from going to the polls in a year when the under-siege Donald is still likely to be the incumbent and nominee, does anyone really think a Blue Wave of voters (You know the tired and false stereotype — Democrats never saw a tax they didn't like) will run away with this wheel tax referendum?
Maybe that was what happened with that professional poll about the property tax — the one that found 60% of Hamilton County voters supported it. Did pollsters only call Democrats?
No. More likely these commissioners — the ones who fell all over each other to support "listening to constituents" and paying teachers more — just think they know more than you.
Don't let commissioners who don't hear you speak for you.