published Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Bradley County considers wheel tax options

By Paul Leach/Correspondent

Poll
Should Bradley County have a wheel tax?

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The Bradley County Commission's Finance Committee will recommend changes to a proposed wheel tax intended to fund capital projects in county schools.

On Wednesday, the committee drafted resolutions that would give the proposed wheel tax -- assessed each time a vehicle is registered in the county -- some flexibility in collecting and spending revenues.

Options include whether to assess $32 or $37 for the tax; whether to exempt the county's 3,000 motorcycles; and discretion to apply tax revenues to old and new capital education debt.

Even though one recommended change would allow revenues to be applied to schools' old capital debt, Commission Chairman Louie Alford said he feared the resolutions halfway tied the commission to fulfilling $38 million in school renovation and building project requests.

"I don't mind setting the price of the wheel tax, but I don't want to get into or box myself into a corner where we say we're going to give them all this money," Alford said.

The education and finance committees drafted the wheel tax proposal in response to a $25.5 million capital funding request made by Bradley County Schools. If the county fully funds the request, it also will need to raise $12 million for Cleveland City Schools. By law, city schools receive $1 for every $3 raised for county schools, based on student populations.

Finance committee analyses have focused on how much money the tax would have to raise to repay the $38 million.

"I think the total amount needed is kind of a moving target," Finance Committee Chairwoman Connie Wilson said.

In January, the county school board decided to pursue Federal Emergency Management Agency grants that could reduce its capital needs by as much as $5 million. The money would be spread among construction costs for a new elementary school in southern Bradley County, an eight-classroom pod at Walker Valley High School and renovations to Lake Forest Middle School.

Alternatives to a wheel tax have been suggested.

On Monday, City Councilman Bill Estes came to the commission meeting and suggested they abandon the proposed wheel tax in favor of a property tax.

"I think a property tax is a much better option for this county than a wheel tax," Estes said. "A wheel tax is unbelievably regressive and hurts the poor."

An increase of 15.14 cents on the property tax rate would result in a $37.84 tax increase on a $100,000 home but generate the same amount of revenue as a $38 to $40 wheel tax, said Estes, citing calculations he performed with city Finance director Mike Keith.

"In light of Councilman Estes' comments the other night, I think there's a lot of people saying that they'd rather have a property tax increase than a wheel tax increase," Commissioner Ed Elkins said Wednesday.

Commissioners have until late June to request that a wheel tax referendum be placed on the Aug. 2 ballot. If voters passed the tax, it would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

The commission will review the wheel tax recommendations Monday at noon at the Bradley County Courthouse.

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.

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