|Voters again considering tax to fund schools
Hugh G. Willett, knoxnews.com
For the second time in less than a year, Loudon County voters will have the option of raising taxes to support improvements for county schools.
The $50 wheel tax referendum on the Aug. 7 ballot follows an initiative on the February ballot that offered voters the chance to raise the sales tax rate by a half-cent to fund school improvements.
Almost six months after rejecting the sales tax increase by a 2-1 margin, residents of Loudon County appear less than enthusiastic about the wheel tax.
Signs have been posted urging residents to vote against the wheel tax. So far, no one has posted signs urging them to vote in favor.
The only public endorsement of the wheel tax came June 30 when the Loudon County school board passed a resolution to support the referendum.
Freddie Gene Walker was the only school board member to vote against the resolution supporting the wheel tax. Walker, who is defending his seat on the board in the August election, said he has been talking to his constituents about the wheel tax.
"I've been out campaigning, and I haven't heard a single person tell me they are in favor of the wheel tax," Walker said.
Loudon County community activist Pat Hunter said the time is not right to increase taxes for any reason.
"The price of everything is going up. People are concerned about their jobs," she said.
Hunter said she also is confused about the purpose of the wheel tax. Although the money is supposed to go to the school building plan, the Loudon County Commission has yet to approve the building plan, she said.
"They don't even know how much money they need, and they're asking us to support a new tax to pay for it?" she asked.
It has been estimated that the wheel tax could bring in as much as $2.5 million in revenue per year.
When the county commission voted June 2 to put the wheel tax initiative on the August ballot, outgoing superintendant of schools Edward Headlee suggested the referendum be worded so that voters could either choose the wheel tax or authorize an increase in property taxes equivalent to the amount that would be raised by the wheel tax.
The county commission dropped the idea of tying the wheel tax referendum directly to the property tax increase, but, according to County Commissioner Don Miller, the two issues are directly linked.
The county commission voted earlier this year to increase the property tax rate by 8 cents from the current rate of $1.80. The commission also has moved an additional 10 cents from the county general fund to the school fund.
If the wheel tax referendum fails, it will leave the county commission with no other alternative but an even larger property tax increase, probably within a year or two, Miller said.
"If the wheel tax passes, it would reduce a future property tax increase by about 20 cents," said Miller. "If it fails, we will be looking at an increase of more than 20 cents."
The size of the increase in the property tax rate would be tied directly to the size of the school's long-term capital construction plans, Miller said. Estimates of the cost of the school building program range from $50 million to $150 million.