Wilson County Commissioners voted Monday night to give the citizens of Wilson County a say in a sales tax referendum.
In a sometimes-heated discussion, commissioners ultimately voted to place a referendum on the August ballot asking voters if they are in favor of a sales tax increase.
The issue came to the county commission table for discussion after Lebanon City Council voted to hold a referendum asking city residents for a half-cent sales tax increase, and Monday commissioners were discussing whether to opt in on that vote.
County Finance Commissioner Aaron Maynard gave a few numbers to the commission regarding the budget.
“The city of Lebanon’s proposed half-cent tax increase, the county’s share of that is about $1.5 million. If the county chooses to get in and it goes county wide, you’re looking at about $3.5 million [for education],” said Maynard.
“There is going to be a vote taken on the issue of the sales tax the city of Lebanon is bringing,” he said. “Having had a chance to think about this a little bit, this is not an attempt to persuade you one way or the other, it’s just a chance to set some things out for you.
“The original budget the school system gave us last year was almost $3.5 million. We sent that budget back to them. A big part of that was for technology; there were also some additional teachers, etc.”
Maynard said that the school system also included a caveat in its presentation that said the 2015 fiscal budget would “include costs for the new Watertown High School as follows: increasing utilities, cleaning service, mowing services. We will be opening a middle school in the former Watertown High, which will increase costs for administration, cleaning etc.”
Commissioner Gary Keith wanted to know how the referendum could impact other taxes.
“If the referendum was to pass, can you give any kind of assurance that more than likely there would not be a property tax increase in the county the next two or three years?” he asked.
“The place that I see a property tax possibly being necessary is on the school side,” said Maynard. “The seven cents that we passed has stabilized the general fund considerably and put some money into the debt service fund. My concern – and I want to reemphasize that I’m not the school finance director and I don’t work with the schools on a day-to-day basis – is the schools are going to have some funding needs that we are not presently prepared for. If this [sales tax] happens, I think it could cause us not to have to go the property-tax route.”
There were several commissioners who voiced concerns on the issue, including Kenny Reich.
“If we opt in and it’s county wide, it will never pass,” said Reich. “If we opt in, we’ll never see this money. There’s no way the county’s going to vote a sales tax in. If we opt out, then Lebanon is gonna vote on it [themselves], and it’s a real good chance that Lebanon will pass it. People that live this side of [Highway] 109 shop in Lebanon, you spend your money in Lebanon; you’re gonna pay sales tax in Lebanon. People on the other side of 109 shop in Mt. Juliet. They still have their own sales tax. If you opt out, you’re still gonna pay this tax if Lebanon votes it in and the county’s going to get nothing.”
Commissioner Annette Stafford made a motion to defer a vote on the resolution until the commission’s next meeting because she felt there were “too many questions on the floor.”
“I think we need to have further discussion,” said Stafford.
After more debate, the motion failed to receive support and the meeting was recessed. After the break, County Mayor Randall Hutto tried to sum up the options presented to the commission.
“If we opt out, in essence what is causing some people heartburn is that if Lebanon votes it in and we opt out, there’s a million and a half on the table education would not get,” said Hutto. “Aaron ran those numbers today. If you opt in, it becomes a county-wide election for every person in this county to vote up or down, whether they want it or not, for every city that’s in this county. If it’s passed, what that means to you as a budget number is $3.5 million.”
After a second motion to defer was made by Clint Thomas and failed to get support, the measure was finally put up for a vote.
The commission voted, by a 20-4 margin (Commissioner Mike Justice was absent) to put the referendum on the August ballot.
“You can never go wrong by letting your people vote on something,” Commissioner Jeff Joines said.