published Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Bradley County commissioners begin review of wheel tax

By Paul Leach/Correspondent
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    Lake Forest Middle School needs some work in Cleveland, Tenn.
    Photo by Jenna Walker.
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Should Bradley County have a wheel tax?

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Bradley County commissioners would like a little more information before they make any decisions about a proposed $32 wheel tax intended to fund $36 million to $38 million in school projects.

The current plan calls for the wheel tax -- assessed each time a vehicle is registered in the county -- to be put before voters as a referendum item on the August 2012 ballot.

"This $32 amount is just a guesstimate," said Commissioner Jeff Morelock, who presented several school funding scenarios to the commission's Education and Finance Committees last fall.

Morelock requested some "technical expertise" to confirm that a $32 wheel tax actually would enable the county to borrow the money needed to fulfill funding requests that include improvements to Lake Forest Middle School, a new classroom pod for Walker Valley High School and a new school in southern Bradley County.

Finance Committee Chairwoman Connie Wilson agreed to address the number-crunching issue with the Bradley County mayor's office before the County Commission's next work session on Jan. 23.

Preliminary calculations, prepared by Morelock, estimate it will cost the county $2.5 million to $3 million annually to borrow the requested funding, depending on bond rates and durations. Based on 90,000 vehicles, the tax would net the county $2.73 million after deducting the 5 percent county clerk collection fee, according to Morelock's figures.

Bradley County registered 97,000 vehicles in 2010, according to state data, said Bradley County Clerk Donna Simpson.

The current wheel tax plan calls for generated funds to be earmarked for education-related debt service, but some commissioners questioned whether the tax revenues also could be used to pay down nearly $65 million in existing education-related debt, scheduled to expire in the next 10 years.

"It seems to be me that we might be served well financially in the long run to start setting that money aside," said Commissioner Adam Lowe.

Commissioner Ed Elkins requested that the commission address the county's financial situation from a larger perspective instead of just tackling education needs. If the school needs are justified, he said, the commission should propose a contingency plan in case the wheel tax fails in referendum.

"I went along with this because it seems to be the only thing that will get through the commission," said Morelock. "I'll go out on a political limb and say I will support the wheel tax approved by this commission. I would support a property tax to get this done."

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

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