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County Commission to make ends meet with scaled back wheel tax

Following several setbacks and obstacles, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ proposal for a $25 increase in the wheel tax rolled through the Shelby County Commission on an 11-0 vote during an unusual regular meeting Wednesday (June 28).

In a statement released after the commission vote, county Mayor Lee Harris said, “Just now, the commission took the final vote on the first phase of our plan to rebuild Regional One Health (the county’s hospital), break ground on the new Frayser High School, and keep on track for another new high school in the Cordova area.

“Total spending for Regional One’s Phase 1 is $350 million, making this project alone one of the largest public infrastructure investments in our community’s history. The campaign for a new Regional One campus, “One Campus,” will mean expanded access to healthcare, particularly for the most vulnerable.

“It means that one of the oldest hospitals in the region will be around for the next generation, and the one after that.

“Thank you, Chairman (Mickell) Lowery, Budget Chair (Michael) Whaley, and Commissioners.”

Wednesday’s action was the final vote on the wheel tax. The tax met initial approval during a Monday (June 26) tally. It applies to all four categories of vehicles.

After Monday’s marathon meeting, that began at 3 p.m. and ended about 1 a.m. Tuesday (June 27), commissioners shoehorned Wednesday’s meeting into their schedules.

Heeding Deputy County Attorney Marcy Ingram’s assurances, they opted to skirt the commission’s 48-hour meeting notice requirement in favor of the state’s “reasonable” threshold, which was 24 hours.

For a wheel tax to pass, Tennessee law requires nine vote majorities at successive regularly scheduled meetings.

The $25 annual tax is a scaled down version of Harris’ original $50 proposal presented earlier in the month.

The new revenue, $19 million, is expected to cover the debt service on bonds to pay for the initial $350-million cost to rebuild the Regional One campus and new high schools in Frayser and Cordova. The total cost of the new hospital campus is about $750 million.

However, long-term funding for other school projects on Harris’ wish list were axed.

Critics have argued that a wheel tax is regressive, as it affects people across the economic spectrum alike, providing they own a vehicle.

An alternate proposal by Commissioner Erika Sugarmon to add 30 cents to the property rate died on the vine after a vote to keep the rate at $3.39 per $100 dollar assessed value.  It would have sunset in two years. It wasn’t taken up for a vote.

“What I presented…would have been $70 million for the first year…$140 (million) total for two years. That would have been more viable,” said Sugarmon before Wednesday’s vote.

Commissioner Britney Thornton, meanwhile, said a property could be a source of additional revenue.

“For me, personally, $25 is not a strong enough commitment to our students…In my personal opinion, the commission has not thoroughly vetted the progressive tax option. Thus, I do not feel that all the viable options have been considered,” said Thornton.

Going into the budget season, Harris had promised to raise the capital funding without lifting property tax rates.

An earlier proposed version of the wheel tax would have doubled the commercial vehicle tax to $160. Other vehicle categories would have risen to $50.


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