(T-G Photo by Mitchell Petty) [Order this photo]
The county will miss this Friday's deadline for putting a tax referendum on the November general election ballot, as some county commissioners had suggested.
"We can now move at our own pace," said committee member and county commissioner Linda Yockey.
The next stops for the committee's recommendation are the county school board, which would have to commit to use wheel tax revenue for teacher salaries, and the county Financial Management Committee, which will decide whether to pass the proposal on to Bedford County Board of Commissioners.
The commission could pass a wheel tax by a two-thirds vote at two consecutive meetings, but the public would then have the chance to sign a petition asking for a tax referendum. That is almost a given in the current environment, so most recent proposals have been to skip the first step and just put the tax proposal directly to the public.
Friday is the deadline for placing referendums on the November election ballot, and so any tax referendum would have to either be a special election -- at a cost of $20,000 or more -- or would have to wait until the next county general election, which won't be until August 2014.
The wheel tax proposal began to be discussed this year after a last-minute change pulled $438,000 out of what school system officials claimed was already a tight school budget. School system officials say the county already spends less per pupil than other counties ranking 23 out of 24 Middle Tennessee school systems, and has lower teacher salaries than its neighbors, making it harder to attract or retain good teachers.
Meanwhile, the county highway department hasn't had a comprehensive paving program in years. In the past, the department would adopt a $2 million multi-year paving plan every few years, locking in the cost of asphalt. But the tight economy, leading to a tight county budget, and the county's lack of new borrowing capacity impacted that routine.
Highway superintendent Stanley Smotherman, a member of the study committee, said that each $100,000 in revenue would fund about a mile of paving on the county's 673 miles of rural roads, including shoulders and striping. The county highway department is responsible for county roads, as opposed to city streets or state highways.
The county has about 50,000 vehicles subject to the tax. Each $5 in tax would raise about $250,000.
Two committee members -- Tony Smith and Smotherman -- favored a $30 rate with a 50/50 split between schools and roads. But the remaining members present Wednesday night favored the 20/10 split. They included Yockey, an educator; county commissioners Jeff Yoes, a retired educator, and Joe Tillett; and school board members Ron Adcock and Andrea Anderson. Adcock and Anderson stressed that they were speaking and voting as individual citizens and were not authorized to speak for the school board.
Another committee member, county commissioner P.T. "Biff" Farrar, was not present on Wednesday.
Proponents say a wheel tax would spread the burden of new revenue across a larger population.
"I think it touches other people that do not pay property tax, and it diversifies the tax base," said Adcock.
A $25 wheel tax, said Tillett, would raise as much as a 17-cent increase (per $100 assessed value) on the county property tax rate. But committee members said a wheel tax wouldn't be a cure-all and that there will still be other needs.
Commissioners last proposed a wheel tax in 2005, but it was defeated by voters by a two-to-one margin.
Since that time, numerous commissioners have said that a factor in the tax's defeat was that it wasn't tied to a specific use.
"Any time you ask for a tax increase," said Adcock, "people want to know where it's going to go, what it's going to be used for."
Smith said he's spoken to numerous constituents, none of whom are completely opposed to a wheel tax but none of whom would support giving all of the proceeds to schools.
"It you put it 100 percent to education," said Smotherman, "it will not pass."
Yockey said that some elementary schools are struggling even with basic supplies.
"They don't even have paper," said Yockey. "Some of the elementary schools do not have paper." She said high schools use concession revenue from sporting events to help boost their school supply budgets, an option not available to elementary schools.
"I haven't heard as much about the highway [needs]," said Yockey, "but I'm not there."
County Mayor Eugene Ray noted that the late commissioner Roger Brothers asked the school system for a five-year plan to make teacher salaries more competitive. But Ray noted there are limits.
"We can't compete with the City of Murfreesboro," said Ray. "We've got to crawl before we can walk."
Anderson asked if there was a way to assure voters that a tax wouldn't go up once it was passed. Tillett said any increase would require two votes of the county commission and could be challenged and sent to a referendum, just like the initial tax.