05/07/08 — Read your lips: No new taxes

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Read your lips: No new taxes

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 7, 2008 2:40 PM

Wayne County voters Tuesday left no doubt about their distaste for a proposed one-quarter cent sales tax increase, voting down the measure by a lopsided margin of 18,669 to 4,012. That is 82 percent no and 18 percent yes.

"Gracious, I didn't expect that," Commissioner J.D. Evans said of the outcome. "That is a shocker. I never would have thought the margin would be that wide."

The county had hoped to use proceeds from the increase to fund the replacement of its aging emergency communications system.

Revenues from the tax were expected to bring in about $2 million annually compared to $550,000 that would be generated by a one-cent increase in the property tax.

Legislators authorized counties to levy either a land transfer tax or a one-quarter cent increase in the sale tax, subject to voter approval, as part of the state's Medicaid tax relief plan.

The commissioners chose the sales tax increase.

The proposal's outcome was not unlike that in other counties across the state. Voters in most counties that put such measures on the ballot voted against them. But few voiced such opposition as did those in Wayne.

Commission Chairman Bud Gray said he was disappointed in the vote. He said he was "especially disappointed" for the emergency workers who would have benefited from the new communications system.

He said he was particularly concerned about deputies who might run into trouble and be unable to get back to their vehicles to call for assistance. The new system would have provided more powerful mobile units for better communications in the field.

"I guess people feel they are paying about all they can," he said.

He said the county does not have a "back-up" plan in the wake of the sales tax defeat.

"I don't know what we will do," he said.

Gray said that the county's only options are a property tax increase or sales tax increase. Gray said the county would not likely consider a property tax increase this year.

He expressed disappointed in changes state legislators have ordered concerning use of the funds generated by the 911 emergency phone system surcharge. The county may use the funds on phones, but not radios, he said.

Gray said he hoped that legislators could be convinced to re-examine that restriction.

Evans said he had expected the proposal to pass based on comments he had heard that it was a "fair tax" since everyone paid it.

He said counties had asked the state to come up with a way to help with finances -- the options were the sales tax increase or the land transfer tax.

"I thought we had done a good job expressing why we needed it," he said. "I don't know why the public responded in this manner. I guess it is a sign of the times."

Evans said voters might have been concerned about a tax increase at a time when they already are dealing with skyrocketing gas prices and an uncertain housing market.

"I think people are a little scared," he said.

Evans said that the board might consider trying again in the November election and "do a better job selling it to the public."

Commissioner Efton Sager said it is difficult to get people to vote for any kind of tax. He said that commissioners are limited in how to generate funding -- the main tool being property taxes.

"As far as I am concerned they (persons who voted against the increase) said they had rather have a property tax increase. I don't think that is the message they really wanted to communicate," he said.

Sager said he would not advocate having voters revisit the issue in November. However, he said he would not fight any effort to put it on the ballot.

Commissioner Andy Anderson said that he thought a lot of people thought the county would still increase property taxes even if the sales tax increase had been approved. Further complicating that issue is the county's pending property re-evaluation that could result in higher property taxes.

Commissioner John Bell said he could offer no opinion on the outcome. He said commissioners were limited to just placing the issue on the ballot.

He said he was unsure if the board would place the issue on the November ballot.

"I am sure there will be some discussion," he said.

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith and commissioners Atlas Price and Jack Best could not be reached for comment prior to presstime today.