Wamp Pushing For Tighter Local Lobbying Rules, Tax Abatement Policies; Bigger Share Of Sales Tax

  • Monday, March 18, 2024
  • Hannah Campbell

County Mayor Weston Wamp spoke to the Pachyderm Club on Monday about the significance of a state basketball title, the need for local lobbying regulations and tightening up on tax abatement policies.

Mayor Wamp listed a few things on the horizon for his office, without spoiling his State of the County address to be given Thursday at the Tennessee Aquarium, which will lay out more specific priorities for the year and kick off budget season, he said.

He opened his talk with a plug for school choice on the heels of Chattanooga Preparatory School’s win of the Class A state championship in Murfreesboro on March 16, which the all-boys charter school won without yet a senior class. Mayor Wamp told the crowd that the school, which opened in 2018, is an example of “big, ambitious philanthropy,” the first of its kind since the Aquarium opened in 1992.

“What their state championship really represents is a lot more than basketball,” he said. “There’s not a more important mission that’s ongoing in our community,” he said.

LOCAL LOBBYING REGULATIONS

Mayor Wamp said county attorney Rheubin Taylor is working to write local lobbying laws modeled after state laws.

He said powerful and persuasive people are on the clock, pushing local boards for action.

“They may not even think of themselves as lobbyists,” he said, “... almost like bootlegging back in the day.”

Mayor Wamp said that local lobbying is “more aggressive” and “more sinister” than lobbying in Washington, D.C., which he’s followed for years, he said.

“You pick up on why they call the place the swamp,” he said.

“Local government can move really fast,” he said highlighting the need for transparency. “Local government can be, on its best days, really responsive.”

State-level lobbying rules require two-way disclosure of payments, plus a time log and activity log, he said.

“None of that exists at the local level,” he said. “I think there ought to be basic disclosure.”

ACCESSIBLE TAX ABATEMENT PROCESS

Mayor Wamp said “looseness” in the tax abatement process has led to confusion among business owners as to who may apply for subsidized housing tax breaks, payment in lieu of tax programs and tax increment financing district zoning. Mayor Wamp, who compared abatements with giving tax money away, said Deputy Mayor Cory Gearrin is working to add structure to the process.

“There’s not nearly enough controls in place,” Mayor Wamp said. “We’re going to insist that there be a high bar before we abate taxes.”

SALES TAX REVENUE

As Mayor Wamp identifies new sources of revenue for the county, he has set his sights on the 5.5 percent of the state’s sales tax pool which has been distributed to cities, not counties, since the 1940s. The $22 million given to the city of Chattanooga should be shared with counties, he said.

In the last 80 years, cities have handed over the responsibilities of education, a health department and jails to counties, whose property tax revenue remains “static,” aside from a natural growth which the county relies on to increase salaries with inflation, he said. Though a weighted state formula sends state money to public schools for education, the money is not for facilities, he said.

Mayor Wamp said state Senator Bo Watson and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood should support the change since it would support education and school facilities, a priority of the state and county. Such a measure could stand in for property tax increases for education, he said.

Mayor Wamp reiterated his belief that counties and states work together best when they work with each other directly, leaving cities out, and that county and state values are more closely aligned with each other than they are with cities.

“It’s time to speak up,” he said.

Sales tax revenue reacts more quickly to inflation and people’s values than lagging property tax revenues, he said. Counties deserve this connection to the constituents with whom they more closely align, he said.

RED BANK’S 52 PERCENT PROPERTY TAX INCREASE

House Bill 0565, Senate Bill 0171 would cap property tax increases at 2 percent plus inflation, or 6 percent plus inflation every three years, unless submitted by referendum.

“The poster child that they’re using is Red Bank,” Mayor Wamp said. Metro Nashville received a 34 percent property tax increase in 2020.

“I got more Red Bank roots than some of these people who act like they’re Red Bank champions,” he said, speaking of his grandparents who were the starting quarterback and Homecoming Queen at Red Bank High School in the 1950s.

Mayor Wamp called Red Bank’s 52 percent tax hike in June “misguided.”

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