Wheel tax lives to see another day

Published 6:52 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2022

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The Claiborne Highway Department was given the green light to continue using funds generated by a wheel tax – one that was created to cover the shortfall in operational costs when $5 million in debts were racked up by the previous road superintendent. The tax, which has been in existence for some seven years, was initially earmarked to pay down the debt and then be eliminated. At least, that was the oral promise made at the time the original wheel tax resolution was adopted.

However, that plan did not go as intended. The debt is paid but the tax continues.

The Claiborne Commission spent a huge chunk of its time Monday evening haggling over whether the $25 per vehicle, per year wheel tax should be eliminated. There were valid arguments on both sides of the question.

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Some commissioners broached the validity of continuing to pool money they say is doing little to improve county roads. Others say they feel pulling the money from the roads during this hyper-inflationary period would be foolhardy.

A few said they had been in contact with their constituency. They said many are in favor of keeping the wheel tax intact. Others were in agreement that continuing the tax would be “a losing battle.”

Commissioner Steve Brogan said the road department is currently receiving significantly more dollars now than ever before when gas tax and other revenue means is counted into the mix.

“Take away this wheel tax and, guess what? It’s still getting more money than it’s ever got. Nobody – none of us 21 (commissioners) can sit here and look me in the eye and tell me that our roads are better now than they have been, because they’re not,” said Brogan.

He said he had traveled over county roads that looked as though the process of “chipping and shooting” was used to cover blacktopped roads.

Commissioner Eric Jones asked county attorney James Estep III that, if the wheel tax was not removed, could a resolution be drafted to put the matter to referendum vote during the 2024 election.

Estep said the tax would need to be removed the same way in which it was created – by resolution.

Commissioner Stacey Crawford, who is a Claiborne Road Department employee, said he hears both sides of the issue.

“I’m concerned about it because I want to see everybody’s roads better. If you want better roads, it’s going to take money. We lost $400,000 in coal severance (taxes). That’s why we supplemented this (wheel tax) in,” said Crawford.

The portion of the wheel tax revenue actually being applied to road surfacing averages $515,182.35 annually, according to Resolution 2022-158.

Those funds can pave about five miles of roadway each year, Crawford said.

Ongoing complaints about the quality of the road surfaces have prompted numerous calls as well, according to the resolution.

“…tar and-chipped roads are falling apart within one year of their construction, and regular asphalt roads are being tar-and-chipped over causing irreparable damage to the base structure,” reads the resolution, in part.

The discussion continued for some time before a vote was called to stop. It failed by a vote of 19 to 2 with Brogan and Jones voting in favor of halting discussion.

Commissioner Dustin Wilson, who represents the isolated Clairfield community, spoke for his constituents.

“Everyone I spoke to in district nine wanted to keep the wheel tax and here is the reason why. A lot of that coal severance (tax money) came out of Clairfield until (the coal mines) shut down. Out of all the departments in Claiborne County, the road department is in Clairfield three times more than the other departments. My people are saying ‘why would we cripple them when inflation is so high right now?’ We just can’t justify taking it off right now. It’s a fair tax. If you got a vehicle, you got to pay,” said Wilson.

He reminded the commission that, if the tax is removed, the county will need to find an alternate way to acquire those funds.

“We’re going to have to rob Peter to pay Paul eventually. Or the roads are going to be a lot worse than they are now,” said Wilson.

Estep was asked whether the language in the original wheel tax resolution could be changed.

“The particular statute that allowed the adoption of a wheel tax has only one category for amendment and that’s for an exemption. I don’t think it can be updated. It has to be rescinded and a new (resolution) adopted,” said Estep.

Commissioner Whitt Shuford suggested voting to remove the wheel tax, then come up with a better plan moving forward by meeting with the road department superintendent to hash out an updated resolution.

Commissioner Dennis Cook made a motion to table the issue until Estep could research the matter. The motion failed with a vote of 3 to 18. Commissioners Cook, Zachary Bunch and Mitchell Cosby were the three in favor of tabling the issue.

The commission then voted on the resolution to remove the wheel tax. The resolution failed by a vote of 12 to 9. Those in favor were commissioners Shuford, Mullins, Brogan, Jones, Haley Barker, Tim Shrout, Anthony Rowe, Gary Poore and Nathan Epperson.

Those against removing the wheel tax were commissioners Bunch, Cook, Crawford, Cosby, Wilson, Mike Campbell, Rosemary Barnett, Carolyn Brooks, Steve Mason, David Mundy, Sherry McCreary and Quinton Rogers.

In order for passage, the resolution would have had to receive at least 14 votes in favor of removing the wheel tax. Once passed, it would have had to undergo a second reading and passage during a future meeting of the commission.