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Sales tax referendum debate ongoing as vote closes in

Madison Mathews • Jul 21, 2012 at 10:45 PM

In less than two weeks Washington County voters will decide the fate of a quarter-cent local option sales tax increase referendum, which, if passed, would go to support area schools.

The referendum will appear on the Aug. 2 ballot.

The proposed sales tax increase would see the current rate of 2.5 percent rise to 2.75 percent.

If approved, the increase would bring the total sales tax rate to 9.75 percent — the maximum allowed by state law.

Once proceeds are collected by the state, half is returned to the city and county on a monthly basis, with the county receiving about 55 percent and the city receiving about 45 percent. The other half goes back to where the tax revenue was generated, which would see the city receiving the majority of that share.

All of the local municipalities have voted to support the referendum as a way to provide a new funding mechanism for education.

But not everybody thinks a tax is the answer to the problem.

Doug White, former owner of White’s Fresh Foods and organizer of the Tri-Cities Tea Party, has been one of the vocal opponents of the sales tax increase, taking out a full-page advertisement in the Johnson City Press opposing the referendum.

“People have been having a hard time and it has been proven that more money does not help the education of our children at all,” he said.

In White’s advertisement, he states that increased spending in education has not led to higher test scores and that nearly half of all education funding is spent on administration and bureaucrats long before any dollars make it to the classroom.

That information was taken from The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank based in Washington.

“That scale shows you that more money does not buy better education,” White said. “It buys bureaucrats.”

White’s wife, Kay, agreed, saying she and many other Tea Party members believe raising taxes of any kind has no way of helping the education of students. Before the Washington County Commission starts to raise taxes, she said it would be better off reducing the salaries of commissioners and school board members.

“We’re not against any one specific person. We are against the way they are acting once they are elected into office. They’re acting as though they’re there for the handouts and higher salaries,” she said.

With both the city and county school systems facing budget deficits for the upcoming school year, deciding to use a sales tax increase in order to fund education is a way for school officials to deal with the loss of state and federal funds, a complete curriculum overhaul and unfunded state mandates.

“That left us with needs to have additional funding. Sales tax is one way that we’re looking at to plug those holes and it’s one that the voters get to vote on,” Johnson City Board of Education Chairwoman Kathy Hall said.

Hall said Washington County is considered to be one of the wealthiest counties in the state, which means it’s funded at a lower level per pupil than other counties.

Having the additional funds in place will not only keep the system from dipping into its fund balance but it will help keep them ahead of the curve when it comes to planning for future growth.

“We can be proactive and set funding aside for all of those buildings we have. It’s important that we take these great facilities and make sure that we maintain them so they are there for a while,” she said.

Hall said she realizes that a tax isn’t popular with anyone.

That’s why it was ultimately decided a sales tax would be the best route, when compared to a property tax increase or wheel tax, since it’s a tax that doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of Washington County residents.

“So a lot of people feel that’s a more palatable tax rather than one that’s paid solely by the residents here,” Hall said.

Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes agreed.

“The school board thinks that the potential for the sales tax will impact the pocketbook of the individual citizen less than certainly a property tax will,” he said.

As education continues to face problems with funding, those problems will eventually wind up in the classroom, according to Indian Trail Intermediate School teacher and Johnson City Education Association president Joe Crabtree.

Crabtree said the system can’t continue to cut funds because it will impact state-mandated programs and lead to loss of jobs for teachers.

“At some point, we’re going to hit a brick wall and we’re going to hit a point where we can’t add any extra programs and any additional jobs because the funding isn’t there,” he said. “If we don’t add funding, we’re going to have to start cutting people. The ones who will suffer the most are our students and that’s who we’re here for.”

As a teacher, Crabtree said the level and quality of education should be always be on the rise, and in order to do that more funding is needed.

“We pay teachers based on experience and their level of education, so it costs more to have an experienced educator. If you want the best, you’ve got to recruit the best and that takes funding,” he said.

White said the people of Washington County are already taxed enough as it is and more money for education would only hinder the children.

“All it would do is buy more bureaucrats and actually would stand in the way of education of our children. This money will not go for educating the children, it will go to raise salaries for those already in power,” he said.

As Aug. 2 draws closer, both school systems have planned to meet with organizations and other people in the community to promote the referendum.

Hall said the feedback thus far has been positive, and she believes the increase will pass.

“In each of the presentations that I’ve done, I’ve had really positive feedback from people that understand the need for education funding and education is such a cornerstone to economic growth in any community, so they want to make sure that we’re maintaining the level of education that we’re supplying to our students,” she said.

Dykes acknowledged there is a portion of the country that has an “anti-tax mentality,” but he said there is a potential for the referendum to pass as long as people head to the polls.

“Since all municipalities and county governments have agreed that these dollars would go completely to education, I think a vote against the tax is a vote against education,” he said.

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