Bedford County Financial Management Committee, meeting Tuesday night, deferred action on a wheel tax proposal, effectively ending any chance of putting a referendum on the November general election ballot.
That means that if a wheel tax is considered, it will either require a costly special election, or will have to wait until a future county-wide election, and the county doesn't have any more elections scheduled for two years.
In order to put a referendum of any sort on the November ballot, the county commission would have to call a special meeting next week. The commission's next regularly-scheduled meeting, on Sept. 11, would be too late to make the state-mandated deadline for adding items to the November ballot.
A wheel tax is a local tax on motor vehicles. In most cases, it's paid at the same time as the annual state fee for renewing a vehicle's license tag and registration. Lincoln County currently has a $25 tax, while Marshall County charges $50 and Rutherford $52.50.
Technically, the county commission could adopt a wheel tax outright -- but if it did so, voters would have the right to petition for a referendum on the tax. Officials have said such a petition would be a foregone conclusion, and so recent attempts to pass a wheel tax have been based on calling a referendum in the first place.
Private citizen James Sica, who had been an advocate against previous tax proposals, said that he doesn't think the current economy is the right time for a wheel tax but said he wouldn't actively oppose a tax if the proceeds were to be put towards education. If the proceeds were put towards some other use, he said he would challenge the tax.
Commissioner Joe Tillett said he opposed taking immediate action on the wheel tax because he doesn't have any specific information from either the school system or the highway department about what they would do it.
"I haven't heard a dollar amount from anybody that they need," said Tillett.
School Superintendent Ray Butrum said that, since it would take months to put a wheel tax in place, it wouldn't produce any revenue until the next fiscal year, and neither the schools nor any other department has started budgeting for next year. However, Butrum said it's clear the school system needs additional revenue.
"Just to get through this year," said Butrum, "we've got to borrow some of our own money." He said the only real spending increase in this year's budget was local costs related to a state-mandated raise for teachers.
"I think the urgency is now," said Butrum.
Butrum said, however, that the school system is excelling even with current spending levels.
"I would say you're getting an award-winning school system for the cheapest amount in Middle Tennessee," said Butrum.
Highway Superintendent Stanley Smotherman has been saying for some time that the county needs a new comprehensive paving program.
"I'll take all I can get," said Smotherman.
Some commissioners said that it was clear after this year's budget process that the county needed more revenue -- and that a wheel tax revenue would be fairer than increasing the property tax, since it would touch a wider base of taxpayers. Commissioner Jimmy Patterson said the county had three times as many vehicles as property owners.
"I'm all for it to go to a referendum," said Patterson, said he favored a $20 annual rate, putting most of the proceeds towards education but setting aside some for emergencies.
Commissioner John Brown, who also stressed the need to broaden the tax base, said the county hasn't raised its effective property tax rate "for Lord knows when."
But Commissioner Linda Yockey said the county needed more specific figures before proposing a wheel tax.
"That's like asking me how much I want to go shopping with," said Yockey. She suggested that the school system and the highway department develop five-year improvement plans. Yockey said she wasn't sure the November election was the right time for a tax referendum.
Commissioner P.T. "Biff" Farrar, however, wanted a November referendum. Farrar proposed a $40 tax, with $30 going to education and $10 to highways. If commissioners wanted a lower rate than $40 per year, Farrar said all of it should go to education and a different solution should be found for county roads.
Outgoing school board chairman Barry Cooper said he believed the chances of a referendum passing in November were slim -- and a failed referendum would prevent another wheel tax attempt right away.
County Mayor Eugene Ray said it sounded like deferring action on the tax was the best option, and the committee agreed.
--Copy editor David Melson contributed to this story.