New wheel tax on table?

Jeremy Nash
Now that the Loudon County Corrections Partnership Committee has voted in favor of renovating the current Justice Center property as a way to mitigate inmate overcrowding, and with other funding concerns on the horizon, Loudon County Commission may be faced with coming up with alternative methods for raising revenue.
Commissioner Kelly Littleton-Brewster said she thinks a wheel tax might be the way to go to generate more money.
She said she initially brought up the idea when commission voted and approved the current 2015-16 budget, and she thought commissioners and the budget committee may soon want to begin considering additional sources of revenue. As it currently stands, the plan is to make a proposal to commission and the budget committee sometime during the next budget cycle in 2016.
“We have some financial issues that are going to be facing in the county that are going to be coming to light very soon, and we need to quit putting so much of the burden on the taxpayers and the property owners, the property taxpayers,” Littleton-Brewster said.
Potential funding concerns for the county include construction costs for the jail expansion, a pending lawsuit with General Sessions and Circuit Court Clerk Lisa Niles, who is seeking additional money for six new deputy clerks at a base salary of $31,000 and raises for current employees, and additional funding for the proper care of county roads.
Littleton-Brewster said Road Superintendent Eddie Simpson has told her the roads were in “very bad shape.”
“My proposal is not to just increase property tax but that we need to look at a wheel tax that can affect all the people of Loudon County, people that are using our school system, that are renting,” she said. “There are several people that are not property owners of Loudon County, and instead of putting all the burden on the property owner, I feel like that that might be something we need to address is a wheel tax.”
Littleton-Brewster said she has been playing around with numbers, specifically a $25 and $50 wheel tax. Monroe County currently levies a $50 wheel tax and has benefited from the additional revenue, she said.
After speaking with Loudon County Clerk Darlene Russell, Littleton-Brewster said she learned there were “approximately” 57,000 vehicles registered in the county.
“I think one of the justifications is that I think that when we increase property tax you are only hitting a certain group of citizens of Loudon County, and I feel like with a wheel tax that you will get a broader spectrum of people, and I think (that’s an option) instead of just putting the burden on the property owners of Loudon County,” Littleton-Brewster said.
Commissioner Leo Bradshaw said he thought a wheel tax would at least be “fair” to consider, especially given the impending jail expansion.
“I’m sure that’s going to come up for discussion and debate,” Leo Bradshaw said. “From the feedback of what I’ve gotten from the public is that it’s not desired. They, of course, really are turned off by the wheel tax. Of course, in my opinion it’d be a more fair way of raising revenue for our jail facility in that it’s not deferred to a lengthy property owners but that’s going to be another issue. I’m sure lot of discussion will be debated on that one.”
Littleton-Brewster said she couldn’t think of another way to generate more revenue unless commission were to “continue to just cut spending out completely and the jail becomes completely overcrowded.”
“I think the commissioners are all going to be open to that,” she said. “I think when we start looking at that we’re going to have to come up with revenue to pay for these for jail, for all of the things that are coming about. I think other commissioners are going ... to be on board with this instead of putting the burden on the taxpayers, and they’re going to see that.”
Other solutions?
County Commissioner Van Shaver said he opposed the idea of a wheel tax and instead believes commission could look for ways to make further cuts in the county’s budget “if the necessity is there.”
“I don’t see anything that would necessitate any tax increases this time,” he said. “We have a very, very healthy fund balance, the county does. The school board has a very, very healthy fund balance. So if we’re carrying good balances, and we got our budget under control, then we may have a penny or two or three here that we could shift around. That would be — I would certainly go there long before I would even consider a tax increase.”

Loudon County Elections Commissioner Susan Harrison said the last time a vote for a wheel tax was placed on a ballot was in 2008 when it was voted down, with 1,226 in favor and 5,032 opposed.
“When the voters, they don’t want it, it’s certainly not my place to say, ‘Sorry, you’ve got take it anyhow’,” Shaver said. “Now whether or not anybody else will or not I can’t speak for them, but it’s just another tax increase any way you slice it or dice it. We know how the voters feel about this one.”
Shaver said he wasn’t convinced the county even needed an expansion to the jail, and he said the county could consider other alternatives to mitigate possible overcrowding.
“It wasn’t a year ago we were told we had to do $47 million, so that didn’t fly so now we’re down to $10 or $15 million,” he said. “So maybe if we let them think about it another year, they can get it down to nothing.”
County Commissioner Henry Cullen said he would like to wait and see how much the jail expansion will cost before he makes up his mind on a way to move forward on funding. Currently, the county is accepting requests for qualifications for architects to present the jail committee with design plans and anticipated costs.
“How we pay for it? That’s going to be down the road,” Cullen said. “Either raise taxes or, as Kelly said, look at a wheel tax. I’m not sure a wheel tax would stand much of a chance of getting approved, although I can only speak for myself. Although it does take the burden — a wheel tax takes the burden off the property owners and puts it on the people who operate a vehicle and register in the county of Loudon.”
Like Shaver, Cullen said combing through the budget to look for additional cuts may also be a plan. The “last resort” would be to further raise property taxes.
Property tax rate inside county limits is $1.8587 on each $100 of taxable property. Inside Lenoir City limits the rate is $1.5387, according to a resolution fixing the tax levy in the county that went into effect July 1.
“The last resort is to raise the taxes, although down the road I’m not saying we can carry ($1.8587) indefinitely,” Cullen said. “Costs go (up), expenses go up, and that’s just the way life’s going now, so I can’t say, ‘Your taxes are going to be ($1.8587) forever.’ I wouldn’t make a foolish statement like that at all. But I’ll tell you what, it’s going to take a long hard look before we do vote to raise them.”