The County Commission decided Wednesday by a 5-3 margin not to allow a referendum on a proposed wheel tax during the spring elections.
Commissioners Chester Bankston, Tim Boyd, Greg Martin, Sabrena Smedley and Randy Fairbanks voted against the referendum, while Commissioners Katherlyn Geter, Warren Mackey and David Sharpe voted for it.
The brainchild of District 6 Commissioner Sharpe, the proposed wheel tax would have charged county residents $60 for each vehicle they own. The tax would go toward funding a 7.5 percent pay raise for county teachers and school administration.
Chairman Fairbanks said, “My elderly constituents said, ‘Commissioner, your commission voted down a tax increase, so you find another tax to find on us. Our message to you is that we can’t afford to pay any more taxes. We’re on a fixed income. No matter what you call it, we can’t afford it.' I could not go to my constituents with a straight face is that there’s a sunset on it. Where it’s implemented for a short time and then it will be cut off at a later time. There’s no way I could sell that to them."
Following heated discussion by Commissioner Sharpe, Commissioner Boyd and other commissioners, the measure was voted down. The lack of assurances on where the money would go was a major talking point during discussions. Each commissioner, regardless of vote, expressed their support for teachers and education in Hamilton County.
During last week’s County Commission meeting, it was stated that the commissioners could not guarantee where the money would end up. While the funds were intended to help pay teachers, several commissioners were concerned about whether or not the taxes would actually pay teachers.
“Who is going to care about the kids in East Hamilton and Brainerd if we’re not going to provide the resources for them?” asked Commissioner Mackey, who noted the poor condition of the schools in Hamilton County, “Sooner or later, they will come before this committee and say our schools are overcrowded. We need to think ahead and plan for that. We continue to see development, and projects coming out in that neck of the woods. Where are we going to put those students if we have no money to build schools?”
Commissioner Martin responded, saying, “This is not about building schools, this is about operations. When you talk about buildings, this is not what’s in front of us. The school board decided to not give our school teachers a raise (when the budget was decided earlier in the year). The wheel tax is something this community could consider in November. I can’t have a resolution that creates taxes in a week, that creates a new revenue stream, without talking to our citizens about this.”
Commissioner Boyd pointed out that Hamilton County Schools received $26 million in additional funding this year. He said even with this increased amount of funding, teachers still did not receive a raise from local funds.
Other commissioners spoke of how, regardless of whether or not the wheel tax passed, money was still going to be an issue in schools. Commissioner Geter asked her fellow commissioners, “The realities have not gone away, and if we are not going to be obedient to the realities that are still existing, then how we as a commission and as a county supposed to address these issues? I don’t know how we go from there. Will there be continued conversations, and more time to vet this out? These realities are not going to go away.”
Commissioner Sharpe made one final impassioned plea to the commission to allow the referendum, saying, “I have concerns as well. I empathize with these people to make ends meet from time to time, or all the time. We’ve talked about that at length. This isn’t about me. This is about the ability to recruit and retain high-quality teachers in Hamilton County. And if we can’t allow the people of Hamilton County to speak, then I don’t know where we go from here.”
When asked if the commission had any future plans to discuss funding teachers’ raises, Chairman Fairbanks said, “There’s nine elected school board members who decide whether the teachers get a raise or not. Now, we can suggest we’d like to see them get paid more. But the money we give to the Department of Education, the board has to decide how to spend that money. So we will not be discussing how to fund teachers’ raises (in the immediate future).”
When asked why she voted to deny the resolution, Commissioner Smedley said, “I’m all for it, but the thing is, this was the option for them. I think an option should be no funding. And who determined it was a wheel tax. I think I heard last week that we’re not even sure that we know how many cars are registered. That was admitted here last week. It would be haphazard to support such a resolution at this time.”
Commissioner Smedley said she completely supports education in the county, and was actively looking into ways to raise money for schools in a way that did not include a wheel tax. She brought up the example of Greenville, S.C., where the community started some sort of fund to pay for building 25 schools in just six years. The commissioner wanted more time to vet other options.
When asked for a comment on his failed resolution, Commissioner Sharpe said, “Democracy lost today.”