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Private Act, wheel tax split commission

Motion fails amid ‘distrust’

By ZOË WATKINS - zwatkins@t-g.com
Posted 4/15/23

A motion to introduce and authorize a Private Act that would empower the Bedford County Commission to enact a Motor Vehicle Privilege Tax (“wheel tax") failed at Tuesday’s commission …

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Private Act, wheel tax split commission

Motion fails amid ‘distrust’


A motion to introduce and authorize a Private Act that would empower the Bedford County Commission to enact a Motor Vehicle Privilege Tax (“wheel tax") failed at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

The commission was split 9-9. The vote came after a lengthy session of public comments and discussion from the commission.

The goal of the motion was to give the county the option to utilize a wheel tax in order to fund school resource officers in every school, according to Commissioner Tony Smith who motioned the resolution at the last Financial Management Committee meeting.

Though most commissioners and citizens who made comments were for the idea of getting an SRO in every school, the issue was how the wheel tax was going to be enacted — through a Private Act versus a referendum. Essentially, the consensus among the opposition was that a private act takes away the vote from the people.

However, Commissioner Linda Yockey, who seconded Smith’s previous motion, explained that the vote was only to allow and provide the commission an option for a wheel tax.

“Property owners in my district are tired of being the only ones to fund the county. Fifteen thousand property owners out of a population of 50,000 carry the burden for the whole county,” said Yockey.

She continued, “Should monies be needed and a referendum were asked this year, it would be December — at the earliest — before a special election could be called for at a cost of $30,000. So, you might as well wait for the March primary.” According to Yockey, if this referendum were to fail, another year will have gone by.

Yockey also said based on precedence and past decision, a referendum will not pass in this county.

“In 1988, under Paul Parker, it was a no. A wheel tax in 2005 under Jimmy Woodson, no. A wheel tax in 2016 under Mayor [Eugene] Ray, no…and as soon as those referendums failed, there was a property tax increase,” said Yockey.

First-year Commissioner Eric Maddox, who made the motion for Tuesday’s public comments to be added to the agenda, was vocal against the private act. He called out Yockey during the meeting, saying he received a call from her on March 7 where she gave him a heads-up on the resolution. He said he voiced his disapproval of the process in how the wheel tax motion got on the agenda — or rather how it was not on the agenda at the financial committee meeting, leaving citizens in the dark.

“A handful of you here in this room have succeeded in circumventing the citizens that trusted and voted you into office,” he said. “I strongly feel that how we got here today is disrespectful to the citizens of the county and inappropriately handled at best.”

“Overall, I feel that people do not trust this local government administration. And, quite frankly, I don’t blame them because I don’t either,” Maddox said.

In a similar sentiment, first-year Commissioner Drew Hooker said, “I have received dozens of phone calls, messages, voicemails, and texts with a very obviously frustrated and furious community that has felt betrayed by the very elected officials they trusted to serve them.”

“We need to dive into this budget and find money, not always raise taxes,” said Hooker.  

However, Commissioner Smith said, who’s been on the commission for 20 years, said, “Currently, this county is spending every dollar of our taxpayer’s money the way that the prior commission voted it to be spent.”

He also cited how the cost of materials and equipment has continued to go up, which puts a larger burden on the taxpayer as decision are delayed. In other words, short-term thinking ends in long-term debt.

Smith said, “We need a couple more wings added to the schools; we need ambulances, firetrucks, police cars, a juvenile detention…If you add all this up, we’re looking at $20 million that’s needed right now in Bedford County. If we wait, it’s going to be seven or eight years before we can borrow this kind of money. How much is this $20 million going to be in eight years from now? We’re going to add another eight to 10 million dollars to our tax payers. This is what I’m trying to avoid.”

This decision also came right before the Gov. Bill Lee announced a plan of more than $200 million that would put SROs in every school. However, Smith said these funds will only pay part of the total cost to fund the nine SROs needed.

Commissioner Biff Farrar read off data from the County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS), which state 59 counties across Tennessee have a wheel tax, while 36 do not (this include Bedford).

Commissioner Adam Thomas suggested citizens vote for the wheel tax only if it goes to referendum and a detailed plan is laid out for how SROs will be funded.

“I do not believe that it is our right course of action to circumvent the people’s right to vote on something that has always been their right to vote on. We cannot go around something solely based on the fact we believe the people of Bedford County will vote against it,” he said.

Public comments

Kathy Reed, principal of Deery-Eakin Elementary and someone who has been an educator in the community for 36 years, spoke in support of the motion. She said SROs are needed today, not only for intruders, but to also to protect educators against upset parents.

“I’ve had situations in the last two weeks where I’ve needed support,” she said. “While I don’t want anyone’s taxes raised, it is time to protect our children and do what’s right…We elected you to do what’s right for our community and sometimes you have to make a hard decision.”

Gene Vedak, who was a police officer for 27 years, said he was in the middle on the issue. He said after contacting the clerk’s office, he found out there are almost 53,000 vehicles in the county, and essentially, a $10 wheel tax wouldn’t be enough, and a $75 tax would be too much. “I think we need to be transparent…and say this is where the money is going,” he said.

Or as Brooke Sanders put it, “If you want to take a private act, that’s fine. But have a detailed plan. Show us where the money is going.”  

Many who spoke were against the private act.

Resident Stephanie Rieford said, “What really concerns me is how the decision is being made. And, honestly, I’m not sure if everyone on this committee truly represents our community.”

Then, there were a few concerned citizens who were against the wheel tax all together.

To sum up the overall feeling from citizens in attendance, resident John Clark said, “You’ve got enough money; you don’t need my wheel tax money.”