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Voters to decide on sales tax increase for schools

A voice vote of the Washington County Commission will place the referendum for a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the August 2012 ballot, but not everyone was in favor.
“That should have been a roll call vote,” Commissioner Sam Humphreys said after the Dec. 19 meeting. “My people don’t want it, I know they don’t want it, and that’s why we (commissioners) are here — to vote for them.”
If passed, the sales tax in Washington County would rise from the current 2.5 percent to 2.75 percent.
Other commissioners also expressed hesitancy about jumping on board during the meeting.
“My understanding is the Board of Education wanted to put it (the vote) on the November ballot, and I think we should move it to November,” Commissioner David Shanks said.
Shanks moved for such an amendment to the motion on the floor made by Commissioner Mark Larkey and seconded by Commissioner Ben Bowman. The motion for an amendment died for lack of a second.Commissioner Lee Chase, chair of the Joint Education Committee, said members approved the August date because they thought it was the best opportunity to get citizens who support education out to vote.
While the city and county school boards have given their stamps of approval, the resolution to raise the sales tax has not been considered by the Johnson City Commission or the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen. However, County Attorney John Rambo said their buy-in is not needed for the county to offer the referendum.
If passed, one half of the additional tax dollars would go to education and one half to the general fund of the government where it is collected, as directed by state law.
“We hope to have separate resolutions that all of the money goes to education,” Chase said.
According to Chase, a significant property tax increase would be necessary to equal the more than $2 million expected from the quarter-cent raise in the local option sales tax in Washington County.
Rambo said interlocal agreements among the governments would be necessary to ensure 100 percent of the revenue is restricted to education.
“If all three don’t agree, can it be rescinded?” Commissioner David Tomita asked. Rambo said that is what he would expect to happen.
While the vote could be pulled from the August ballot if necessary, Tomita said consequences could result from moving ahead without a definite plan.
“If the referendum passes, we don’t want to be obligated,” he said. “If we’re going to support this, an agreement would have to be in place (prior to the vote), at least a verbal one. I feel like we still need to do some work.”
Chase said he thinks the county commission needs to take the lead on this issue.
Commissioner Ethan Flynn asked Mayor Dan Eldridge to share his opinion on the sales tax increase. Eldridge said he is in favor of letting the voters decide.
“Nobody wants a tax increase, but if the money can go to education and benefit the people of Washington County, it may be more likely to pass,” he said.
It will be an uphill battle regardless, according to Eldridge, who said he sees very little chance of success if the government entities can’t come to an agreement for all of the revenue to be designated to education.
“But we still have plenty of time,” he said.
At the Joint Education Committee’s request, Director of Schools Ron Dykes has invited a representative from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations to explain to commissioners the current formula used to determine funding amounts for the state’s school systems.
Dykes said a date to do so will be set during the first three weeks of January.