Cooper: Wheel tax – been here before


Somewhere, the late Hamilton County Commissioner Curtis Adams is smiling. Someone has proposed a wheel tax again.

Whether a proposed levy on vehicle owners will get any further than it did the numerous times the former commissioner, who died in July, suggested it is anybody’s guess. We’d bet not.

But if commissioners can satisfy themselves on the wording of a referendum, and if the Hamilton County Clerk’s office believes the i’s can be dotted and the t’s crossed for it to be workable, we say let the public decide.

County commissioners will vote on whether to do that on Wednesday. On that day, as proposed in a resolution by Commissioner David Sharpe, they’ll decide whether to put a $60 annual wheel tax to benefit public schools on the next county ballot.

The next county ballot is March 3, 2020. If commissioners approve the resolution, and if voters approve the referendum, the tax collected from owners of every automobile, motorcycle, and motor-operated bike and scooter used for transportation on public roads would go to benefit salaries of Hamilton County School employees.

The city of Chattanooga has had a wheel tax — known as a city sticker, and charged only to automobile owners who live within the city limits — since 1944, according to newspaper archives.

That $5 tax was imposed by then-Mayor Ed Bass and was said to be for education. However, the revenue from the first year of collection went into the general fund and has ever since.

The problem with a wheel tax, then-Hamilton County Commissioner Ben Miller said in an op-ed in 1995, is that it “imposes a harder burden on the tadpoles than the frogs.”

In other words, be ye rich or poor, young or old, if you’ve got transportation, you pay.

However, that’s one of the reasons current County Commissioner Chester Bankston has said in the past he could support a wheel tax — it is likely to be spread out to more people than property taxes.

Hamilton County first examined a wheel tax in 1963 when then-Gov. Frank Clement suggested counties should broaden their tax base. County councilmen met with state legislators to consider whether such a tax, or ones on cigarettes, utilities and beverages, or imposing a payroll tax or increasing the sales tax, might work. The wheel tax wasn’t chosen.

In 1967, the Tennessee Municipal League and the Tennessee County Services Association suggested the legislature authorize local governments to tax automobiles, although The Associated Press noted a tax on automobiles was “one of the most controversial levies considered by lawmakers.”

That law wasn’t passed until 1976, and a wheel tax was suggested that year to pay for a downtown civic center-coliseum, but Hamilton County’s government didn’t bite. It didn’t two years later, either, when a wheel tax was proposed instead of a hotel-motel tax to help fund education.

Finally, in 1983, county commissioners bit. They passed a $15 wheel tax 8-0 on first reading. But in between the first and second readings, potential problems with collection and enforcement cropped up. By the second reading, the resolution failed 6-0, with two commissioners absent and one passing on the measure.

But with this newest proposal we think of Adams, who helped engineer commissioners to pass a wheel tax 8-1 in 1991. By the time it got to a second reading, though, it again had no support because of potential collection problems and died.

He pushed a wheel tax again in 1992 for general revenue purposes and then for a new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football stadium and trade center expansion in 1995.

“Both are painful,” Adams said at the time of the choice between a wheel tax or a property tax rise. “It’s like a choice between a root canal and the removal of a wisdom tooth. But the wheel tax spreads the pain around more fairly.”

At the end of one of the votes, he said resignedly, “[P]eople in Hamilton County will not vote to tax themselves, let’s face it.”

Adams was still on the commission in 1999 when the board again passed a wheel tax — this one $25. But petitioners got enough signatures to force a referendum, and the voters sent the wheel tax away again. Current Hamilton County Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman was one of the leaders of that drive.

When a wheel tax came up again in 2004, after originally supporting a wheel tax, the commissioner read the tea leaves of recent defeats of wheel taxes in nearby Rhea and Polk counties and decided he couldn’t support one for Hamilton County.

“Do like families have to do when they’re running short on money,” Adams said. “There’s nothing wrong with conservative thinking.”

We think that’s how voters will see it if a wheel tax is put to a referendum in 2020. But, wheel tax or no wheel tax, we like letting them have their say.


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