Wheel tax back?

With $4 million in federal match on the line, county mayor to propose 2-year tax for roads

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By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

A variation of the wheel tax voted down in the November election could soon be back before the Blount County Commission, said Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham.

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said Tuesday that during the March 12 Budget Committee meeting he would propose a temporary, two-year wheel tax for upgrading roads in Blount County. The measure would raise more than $2 million over two years that could be used to obtain another $8 million in matching federal funds.

Cunningham said the measure is different from the referendum commissioners put on the November ballot that called for a $10 per vehicle tax on each car registered in Blount County because that measure did not automatically go away in two years.

The wheel tax referendum failed by a vote of 9,714 to 3,883, with 71 percent of the voters saying No.

Cunningham said the measure would give the highway department funds necessary to get federal dollars the county is currently losing because there isn’t local money to fund the federal matching requirement. "There are some matching federal funds for $4 million if we can come up with $1 million. We’re looking at different things as far as how to do that. One would be a wheel tax for a couple of years at a reasonable amount," he said.

Cunningham acknowledged that a $10 wheel tax has been discussed in the past, but said that when taxes are put on a referendum, they don’t pass. He says if commissioners want to avail themselves of the opportunity to get the federal matching funds, "this is a fair and equitable way to go about it.

"It’s amazing what Bill Dunlap could do if we could raise this money," the mayor said. "It would be earmarked for highways.

None of the other departments or elected offices could get their hands on it. What he could do to improve the infrastructure would be phenomenal. It’s not the kind of thing you do by passing the buck on a referendum," Cunningham said.

The mayor said putting a two-year wheel tax on a referendum wouldn’t be worth the expense because people rarely vote themselves a new tax. "That’s what they elect commissioners for, to make the hard calls," Cunningham said. "You can’t vote by holding your finger in the air and seeing which way the wind blows. Being an elected officer isn’t a popularity contest, it’s a matter of getting the job done."

The mayor said the tax would be for a limited number of years and then it would go away. The item will be discussed at the March 12 Budget Committee meeting.

Cunningham said he didn’t campaign on a wheel tax before he was elected. "I campaigned on doing what’s in the best interest of Blount County. It’s going to cost us to step into the 21st century," he said. "We’re the ninth richest county in the state based on property assessments and 26th lowest in terms of tax rate. There are 60 some counties with property tax rates higher than ours."

Highway superintendent Bill Dunlap said 80 percent of the roads identified in the 2000 study qualify for federal assistance. "You’re putting 120,000 cars per day on roads designed for less than a 1,000 a day. It is a safety issue," he said.

"We are 30 years behind in road improvements. Other than William Blount Drive that was started by the county and turned over to the state in early 1980, the last road that the county upgraded themselves was Sam Houston Road in 1970," he said. "We’re 25 to 30 years behind in major road improvements based on growth happening in the county."

"We could get at least two of our major routes upgraded (with the funds)," Dunlap said. "Morganton Road is No. 1. No. 2 is Old Niles Ferry. A third one would be Ellejoy Road."

Morganton and Old Niles Ferry roads are in commissioner Scott Helton’s district, and he said the commission needs to look into the wheel tax because it is a fair tax.

Helton said the tax would generate revenue directly for roads. "Bottom line, I realize the wheel tax was defeated, but since the election, I’ve had the majority of people who said they didn’t realize the total purpose of it and what it was used for."

Part of Old Niles Ferry Road falls within the district that commissioners Wendy Pitts Reeves and Mark Hasty represent.

Reeves said it was fascinating that this measure would come up because she recently got an email from a constituent suggesting that the commission create a fund that would be held in trust just for obtaining matching federal grants.

"Any idea anyone brings forward to help with funding is worth listening to. We have to be careful we’re doing something public wants," she said. "These are really bad roads that need help. They don’t have the required 18 feet and two
shoulders, and traffic on Morganton Road is horrendous."

Hasty said it was something the commission should consider even though voters defeated the wheel tax soundly. "I don’t know if it was because of the (increased) tax rate that started this year and the reappraisal. I think people felt like they knew they couldn’t get out of that one, but they didn’t want to impose something else," he said.

Hasty said a wheel tax would be fair in that it would be imposed on everyone and not just property owners. "The thing I like about it is it’s like a user’s fee," he said. "It goes to roads instead of everywhere else."

Ellejoy Road is in commissioners John Keeble and Mike Walker’s district. Keeble said it would be something the commission would have to study carefully, but people on Ellejoy Road would like to see improvement. "Ellejoy Road has got to be widened," he said. "It’s not safe for school buses to travel."

Keeble said that even though residents voted down the referendum in November, "it would be something we’d look at seriously. I could possibly support something like that if I could fix these roads."

Walker was hesitant to support a wheel tax. "After seeing how soundly it was defeated in the last election cycle, I don’t know if I would touch it with a 10-foot pole," he said.

Walker said it was clear there needs to be a capital plan to buy highway department equipment as well as to make road improvement. Getting federal funds would "no doubt be good for the county," Walker said. "But as far as a wheel tax, I don’t know."

Walker said the he was less concerned with the length of time for the tax than he was the possibility that someone could shift those funds to another area than where they were intended.

According to Blount County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Marion O’Briant, Morganton Road has topped the list with the most accidents of any road patrolled by the sheriff’s office since 2003.

  • In 2003, Morganton Road had 55 accidents, followed by Old Niles Ferry Road with 24 accidents and Ellejoy Road with 21 accidents.
  • In 2004, Morganton Road had 58 accidents, Wildwood Road had 38 accidents, Old Niles Ferry Road had 34 wrecks and Ellejoy Road had 23 wrecks.
  • In 2005, Morganton Road had 62 accidents, Wildwood Road had 32 wrecks, Old Niles Ferry Road had 23 accidents and Ellejoy Road had 23 wrecks.
  • In 2006, Morganton Road had 52 accidents, Wildwood Road had 26 wrecks, Ellejoy Road had 22 accidents and Old Niles Ferry Road had 17 wrecks.

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