Grassroots Pundit: Sumner County’s Role in the Governor’s Gas Tax Increase Story

The story of the Governor’s proposed gas tax increase introduced on Wednesday was being written for nearly two years in Sumner County. The most recent chapter was added with the attendance of County Executive Holt and Jimmy Johnston of Forward Sumner, the county’s hired provider of economic and community development services, at the Governor’s press conference Wednesday.

In preparation for the budget year that runs July 1 to June 30, the Sumner County Budget Committee holds several workshop-like sessions in April and May to review all of the required and requested budget line items. This was the case in 2015, the first budget to be set after the 24% property tax increase.

As an outcome of a Highway Commission meeting, an additional $100,000 was proposed for the Highway Department. The proposal came out of the Highway Commission to address the poorly received stoppage of brush pick up, especially in light of the considerable property tax increase. Initially, the $100,000 was added to the proposed 2015-16 budget. But, then at the Budget Committee meeting of June 8, 2015, after County Executive Holt made the argument that funding to the Highway Department would have to be maintained in the future, it was voted unanimously to remove the $100,000 increase from the 2015-16 proposed budget.

Forward Sumner came in with a 2015-16 budget request of $100,000, after receiving $60,000 in funding for the 2014-15 budget year, up from $40,000 in 2013-14. During the workshop session of May 6, 2015, Forward Sumner’s budget was set at $70,000. At the June 8, 2015, Budget Committee meeting, Johnston appeared along with County Executive Holt, who explained that Johnston was requesting an additional $30,000, for a total of $100,000, for the Retire Tennessee and Transit Alliance programs. The $100,000 to Forward Sumner was unanimously approved, and $100,000 was unanimously taken away from the Highway Department. Interesting that increased funding was taken away from something the county is responsible for – roads, while increasing funding for something the county is not obligated to do – economic development.

Back in 2015-16, the $100,000 appropriation to Forward Sumner was approved with the requirement that Johnston provide a quarterly report to the Budget Committee. Johnston received another $100,000 from the county in 2016-17. Nearly two years later, we still don’t know what Forward Sumner has done for the county’s $200,000, because Johnston has yet to provide a report under Budget Committee Chairman Goode (2015) or Foster (2016).

Current Budget Committee Chairman Pomeroy requested that Johnston attend the January 9 Budget Committee meeting, but Chairman Pomeroy reported that with the Martin Luther King holiday, Johnston was under the misunderstanding that the meeting would be delayed by a week and would, therefore, not be attending to provide the report. (As a side note, Forward Sumner has also been receiving $50,000 per year from the City of Hendersonville. At the time of this writing, it is unknown whether Johnston provides reports to the City.)

One thing that Johnston can be credited with is assisting County Executive Holt in trying to make the case for spending $20 Million to purchase somewhere between 750 and 1000 acres of agriculturally-zoned property at an average of $20,000 per acre to turn it into an industrial park. The industrial park had no proposed business partners, so the purchase would have been made on pure speculation and against the wishes of hundreds of citizens and neighbors to the proposed site who turned out to the meetings in opposition to the proposal.

In addition to promoting the funding increase to Forward Sumner, the funding decrease to the Highway Department and the industrial park proposal, County Executive Holt was the one who brought the “Support for Enhanced, Sustainable Funding for Transportation needs for the State of Tennessee and for Local Communities” Resolution to the Legislative Committee of the County Commission.

That Resolution urged Governor Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly to 1) identify additional ongoing State funding for transportation needs that incorporates a mechanism to keep pace with future inflation; 2) ensure that the Tennessee Department of Transportation continues to have the discretion to select transportation projects working collaboratively with local communities; and, 3) allow for a local option for dedicated revenue to fund local transportation and transit initiatives. It is important to note that, according to the County Executive, the Resolution was prepared at the state level and given to Davidson and all of the ring counties.

The wording of the third item above would give the impression that currently there is no local option for the funding of roads when, in fact, there is. That would be the County Motor Vehicle Privilege Tax, commonly known as the wheel tax. Sumner County’s wheel tax is $51 per vehicle, as compared to 36 other counties that have none and 36 with a wheel tax less than $51, making Sumner in the minority as one of 23 counties with a wheel tax of $51 or higher. Of the nearly $6.8 Million in wheel tax budgeted for 2016-17, just 30 percent goes to the Highway Department and the remaining 70 percent goes to schools.

The chapters have been written for at least two years to make it seem that the only possible outcome to the story is a gas tax increase along with other new taxes. The tale didn’t begin with the Governor’s introduction of his plan on Wednesday, but with a complex web of activities by him, his administration and members of local governments of which Sumner County was an active participant.

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