The Hamilton County commission will vote next week on a proposal by Commissioner David Sharpe to allow voters to decide on a $60 wheel tax for the county schools.
The wheel tax would charge county residents $60 per year for each vehicle they own. According to Commissioner Sharpe, this new tax would generate close to $18 million a year, and would a 7.5 pay raise for teachers in Hamilton County.
This proposed tax was the subject of heated discussion among commissioners, with some for the tax going to voters, while others were vehemently against it.
Commissioner Sharpe began proceedings by outlining his proposed wheel tax.
“There’s obviously very strong opinions on both sides of this matter,” said Commissioner Sharpe.
“This resolution is simply to answer the question of where do our constituents lie about how we support educators and compensate educators and the value they provide to Hamilton County. And I can think of no better way than to take it to the ballot box and let them speak on it.”
One opposing commissioner was Commissioner Tim Boyd, who accused Commissioner Sharpe of having a ‘UnifiED’ agenda in regards to his proposed wheel tax. He also brought up the fact that the commission could not dictate how the money from the wheel tax was spent. There is nothing guaranteeing that the school board would spend the money from the tax on a teacher pay raise, he said.
“This is another tax that makes Hamilton County even less competitive, and if we want taxes, let’s push for economic growth, and let’s not put the burden on our residents,” said Commissioner Boyd, “I don’t trust the school board one iota when it comes to how they handle taxes. As a Republican and commissioner, I’m against growing government. All this would do is give the school board with more money to hire more ineffective people to do more ineffective work. I’m not going to be for a social justice, equity, collective agenda pushed by the current school board.”
Multiple commissioners had questions about the timing of the vote. This crucial vote Is set to occur in March during county primaries. Several commissioners asked why the vote was not set in the fall during the presidential election when more people would vote. One such commissioner was Commissioner Greg Martin.
“I would recommend that we put this resolution to the education committee to study. I question the date this referendum would be in,” said Commissioner Martin. “Why would it be in March rather than November? I question the dollar amount, why not 10, why not 15, why not 30, why 60? That would be my suggestion.”
Commissioner Boyd reminded his fellow commissioners that, while he believed education was important, funding education is only one of many expenses the county needed to think about.
“We as commissioners have more to think about than just funding education. We need to fund infrastructure, and jails for our sheriff. We need to put this vote way off, but if we do vote, then I’ll be pushing for several amendments,” said Commissioner Boyd.
Commissioner Warren Mackey was more supportive of the proposed vote for a wheel tax.
“It seems that we’ve been talking about a wheel tax for at least 14 years, and yet it’s still too soon. And it seems that six months is enough time to decide. We can continue to spend $99,000 a day to put people in jail, so let the people tell us what they want. He then turned his attention to the crumbling infrastructure of Hamilton County’s schools, and the amount of money needed to repair them. “People up here, for years and decades, have failed in their responsibilities. Repairs would cost over one billion dollars.”
“People don’t’ go to jail because they don’t have jobs. They’re going to jail because they commit crimes and make poor choices,” said Commissioner Martin. “Our sheriff’s department and law enforcement are not going around finding people without jobs and are not saying, 'Well. you don’t have a job, you’re going to jail.' ”
Like Commissioner Martin, other commissioners wished for more time to elapse in between next week’s vote and the referendum. The analogy of a table was frequently used throughout the meeting. Commissioner Mackey said, “It seems like the best conversation is going to be around the dinner table, where they can make up their mind. Let them meet there, and then come out and vote.”
Commissioner Martin used this analogy to push for a later voting date. Because more people are going to vote during the presidential election, why not put the referendum on that ballot? Not only that, he posited, but people would also have more time to consider their choice.
“If we want to hear people at the kitchen table make a decision, let’s get a lot of tables,” said the commissioner. “Let’s get a Thanksgiving table, when people are coming out to vote.”
“The quality of education in Hamilton County matters. It directly impacts student achievement,” said Commissioner Katherlynn Geter. “And when we talk about investing in Hamilton County, then it’s important that we focus on how we invest in our children. After all, at one point, someone invested in you.”
Commissioner Sabrena Smedley was supportive of the referendum, but recommended voters be given more than two options on the ballot, saying, “I want to say that we support and believe in giving the voters the choice in the ballot. But I would really like to give the voters more options, including whether they support an increase to the department of education at all. I also think we should look at more innovative ways of raising money.”
After the meeting adjourned, Commissioner Sharpe was sure to clarify what he was doing. He, in no way, was attempting to “pass” a tax.
“I’m just trying to get a wheel tax on the ballot, as many of my colleagues have suggested was an appropriate measure moving forward after the budget debate. That’s all I’m doing. I’m revisiting the conversation my colleagues brought up previously.”