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Unicoi County voters to decide wheel tax

Brad Hicks • Sep 10, 2012 at 11:17 PM

ERWIN — After weeks of discussion on the issue, the Unicoi County Commission has opted to have the voters of Unicoi County decide on whether they would favor the implementation of a wheel tax in the county.

At a called meeting held Monday evening, members of the commission present voted 5-2 to approve a resolution to place a wheel tax referendum on the November general election ballot. Commissioners voting against the measure were Gene Wilson and Kenneth Garland. Commissioners Doug Bowman and Bill Hensley were not present.

Following Monday’s approval of the resolution, the county’s voters will vote on whether they would want to see the implementation of a $25 wheel tax per registered vehicle in the county. The motion to approve the resolution was made by Commissioner Dwight Bennett and seconded by Commissioner Loren Thomas.

Prior to the commission’s vote, Wilson said he has received a number of calls from county residents voicing opposition to a wheel tax. He called for more research on the matter before voting on the resolution.

“I’ve had a lot of calls today,” Wilson said. “People don’t want this.”

However, Thomas said he has researched the matter and, while he admits a wheel tax is “not for everybody,” said it would overall benefit the county’s property owners by alleviating some of the tax burden placed on them. He said a wheel tax of $25 on 90 percent of the 20,202 vehicles registered in the county last year would generate approximately $450,000, which would allow for the offsetting of next year’s property tax rate by about 15 cents per $100 of real property.

“If you own $150,000 or more of property, then it benefits you,” Thomas said. “If not, then this may cost you more. I just think it’s a more fair way of taxing more people for the services that everybody uses rather than making just the property owners pay for all the services that our county has.”

Thomas asked County Attorney Doug Shults what they procedure would be if the wheel tax amount would need to be increased in the future if it is passed. Shults said other counties with the wheel tax have also left this up to voters to decide.

“I think that’s the only appropriate, safe way to do it,” Shults said.

The county commission’s finance committee has met with the county’s office holders and held a number of meetings over the course of the past month to set the county’s 2012-13 fiscal year budget, which county officials hope to have submitted to the state by Oct. 1. On Thursday, the commission met in a called session and approved recommendation of the county’s proposed 2012-13 budget, which includes a proposed 22-cent hike in the property tax rate. The commission is set to meet on Sept. 24, when it will consider final approval of the budget.

While Thomas referred to the proposed tax increase as “unfortunate,” he also said it was “unavoidable.” He also said a wheel tax would not give the county “more money to spend” as he said some have implied, but should allow the county to “safely” reduce the county’s property tax rate by 15 cents next year.

“I’d like to let the public know we have worked very, very hard to cut as much as we can off this year’s budget and, although there were some other things that we could have cut, without drastically cutting services, there’s not a whole lot more than we could have cut,” Thomas said.

Following Monday’s meeting, Thomas said that if the county’s citizens vote in favor of the wheel tax, it could be implemented in January rather than with the start of the 2013-14 fiscal year next July. He said this would allow county officials to more accurately gauge how much the tax would generate over the course of a year.

“So that way we have six months of data history behind it going into when we go into (2013-14 fiscal year) budget talks,” he said.

Garland said after the meeting that he opposed the presented referendum resolution because he is opposed to any new taxes. He also voiced concern that the wheel tax amount could see increases in the future.

“I just don’t want to see no new taxes,” Garland said. “It’s just more money for them to spend.

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