Issue is education:

Group makes half-cent sales tax referendum push

It’s not a plea many are eager to make -- especially men and women in business or political office: Vote yourself a tax increase.

Nevertheless, as early voting begins, Blount Countains for Educational Excellence are asking residents to vote ‘Yes’ for the referendum that adds a half-cent to the existing sales tax.

The referendum asks for a vote For or Against the following: “Shall resolution number 08-08-003, passed by the County of Blount, which increases the local sales tax rate from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent and the proceeds to be used for education become operative.”

Proponents of the referendum, including Steve West, who is on the group’s Champions Committee, say they believe the possibility is “excellent” that the citizens of Blount will get a half-cent increase anyway in the near future at the hands of the state, with little say then in how the money is spent.

State law mandates the sales tax cannot go above 9.75 percent. With the current sales tax rate at 9.25 percent, group leaders say Blount County residents should claim the remaining .5 percent for schools in Blount County, Alcoa and Maryville before the state claims it and uses the Basic Education Plan formula to siphon local dollars to school systems in other parts of the state.

The half cent being proposed in the referendum would be split between the county and cities much like the current sales tax money is spent, with proponents expecting it could raise an additional $7 million annually for area schools. And, since it is a sales tax, 40 percent is expected to come from visitors to the area who shop and stay here rather than all from residents.

Regarding how the money is divided, half of the funds go to schools based on attendance and the other half goes to the municipality where it is earned.

The first half of the proposed .5 sales tax increase would go to schools and would be determined by average daily attendance at the school systems. According to the groups calculations, 8.8 percent of the revenue is Alcoa student population; 27.6 percent is Maryville’s and 63.7 percent is the county’s.

The second half of the proposed increase is divvied up based on where the tax is earned.

Melissa Copelan with Copelan Public Relations is helping to coordinate the group’s efforts. “Our group is in a full-court press to educate voters about the half-cent sales tax,” she said.

West said the group is also initiating a direct mail campaign and has set up a website, halfacent.org. Education is major issue and the group’s motto is “Half a Cent is Money Well Spent,” Copelan said.

Members have been speaking to civic groups and others who request information. Public meetings begin next week, with three meetings planned between now and the election.

The first meeting will be at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 23, in Lawson Auditorium at Maryville College. The second is at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 30, at the Blount County Library and the last at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 3, in Lawson Auditorium.

“We want to make sure when the voters head into the polling booth, they are well informed,” Copelan said. “Three very different, distinct times are planned to hopefully target any population that would need information on the referendum.”

West said the teachers he has spoken with about the referendum ask a lot of questions about how the money will be spent and how the money comes in, and he has found them to be very positive about the increase.

“One of the things that has changed is that, when we started this a short three months ago, we were looking strictly at capital projects that had been obligated,” he said. “Since then, as the state has been reporting on lessening of sales taxes collected and cuts they’re making and probably are going to continue to make unless the economy turns around quickly, lots of this money may very well go to keeping programs going and teachers hired.”

Copelan said that the current economic crisis shows how quickly fiscal situations can change. “I dare say if we all looked back three months, we would not have imaged the economic climate we’re in today. We’re looking now at a survival mode, and the bottom line is they need extra money. If this is a good vehicle to provide that, we want to give opportunities to decide where they place their money.

West said that about 40 percent of communities across the state already have maxed out their local option sales tax, making the representatives in those areas more likely to vote for the state to take the other half-cent.

West said the worsening economy and plans already set in motion to build or renovate schools dictate another revenue stream be established. “There is no question, the schools have been planned, how much of it do you want coming out of property tax?” he said.

West said it appeared to him the community was behind the effort. “If not out of desire, out of necessity,” he said. “There are few options.”

West said the new money could go for construction and/or renovation of existing schools, for buying new technology and books as well as upgrades. “It is a big business, schools and education in our community. We’re getting less from the state than we did before,” West said.

For those who don’t have children in schools, West says he is not hearing as much from them about not wanting to fund schools as he once heard. “Our quality of life is predicated on our focus on education. Anybody who moved here, moved here for a reason and that reason comes from both our county and city schools, Maryville College, Pellissippi State,” he said. “Compare us to counties who haven’t had that emphasis. That is why people come here is because of good job opportunities.”

West said there really hasn’t been a lot of naysayers to the initiative. “I think education as an issue has turned people around,” Copelan said. “How can you not be for education?”

Copelan said the No. 1 question the organization gets regarding the referendum is how citizens can make sure the money goes to education. West said the referendum is very clear and then it’s all about holding people to their commitment. “You hold elected officials accountable. I think it has been laid out clearly, succinctly and up front. This has not been pushed by schools or governments and, while nobody wants a tax increase, it’s a choice of what kind of taxes you pay.”

West said the opportunity to get the sales taxes for Blount County won’t last long. “If not now, when? Right now is the right time,” he said.

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