You might have heard that Monroe County recently increased its wheel tax, doubling it from $25 a year to $50 a year. Including the $29 the county and state charge you for the privilege of driving on the roads, that brings the amount you pay to keep your car on the road to $79 a year.
There has been outrage, some, and the County Commission did itself no favors by studiously ignoring the people who had come to the meeting to ask, among other things, why was there a tax increase, where did the money go and, “Do you all know how poor we are?”
Why was the tax increased? Basically because of poor planning on the part of the county. There hadn’t been a tax increase of any kind since the 2012-13 fiscal year, and costs kept going up. People seem to accept, with a sigh, cost increases in every other facet of life, but when government says, “Hey, we just can’t do it with the money coming in anymore,” they pitch a fit that can be heard on the moon.
A lot of this could be avoided if a small, yearly property tax increase was instituted. Not much. Tie it to the cost of living, usually not more than 2 percent a year, and if a government takes in more money than it needs, it can be put into the fund balance and when you need something new, like a jail or a school, the money is there.
Make the annual increase part of the charter so county commissioners no longer have to beat their heads against a table as they try to balance the budget by convincing county employees you can make it just fine on minimum wage. Disclaimer: commissioners didn’t actually try this, but you know at least one of them thought across-the-board pay cuts would help a lot.
Also, people can handle an extra $6 a year on their property taxes than $250 all at once.
Where does the money go? Depends on what part you’re talking about. The original wheel tax from 1993 was put in place to pay for Sequoyah High School, a new Tellico Plains High School and renovations to Sweetwater High School. The schools were expected to be paid for in 20 years, at which point the tax would be removed.
Here’s where government talk can get you. The original wheel tax is considered open ended, meaning that as long as there are schools to pay for then it will be collected. And there have been three schools built since the turn of the century, meaning, yes, there are still schools to be paid for.
The new wheel tax, despite popular belief, is not going to pay for the new Justice Center. As County Finance Director Libby Hicks pointed out, the money for it is there in its own budget. It’s in the form of a loan, but it is there and did not necessitate a tax increase of any kind.
So, where does it go? It goes straight into the general fund so it can be used for whatever is needed. And a lot of it will go into operating the new Justice Center, but for the real reason you need to once again reference the “no new income in seven years” argument referenced earlier.
And for the people who ask how dare we build a Justice Center when new schools are needed? Well, in the past 25 years we’ve built five new schools and renovated several others while the current jail is 60-plus years old and the Courthouse is well over 120 years old and neither, especially the jail, serves its purpose anymore.
And just how poor are we? According to Data USA, the median household income in Monroe County is right at $37,000 a year. That’s pretty low, but it is slightly above the average pay for rank and file government workers. Not the department heads and elected officials, all who, in my humble opinion, are wildly overpaid anywhere from $65,000 a year to $100,000 a year.
I believe in taking what they’ll give you, but for a county this size, no one, elected or not, should be making $100,000 a year in salary.
Can the average person in Monroe County afford $79 a year to pay for a sticker to put on the car so you won’t get pulled over? Sure. I’m average and I can afford it. I’ll gripe and moan about it, but I can afford it. It averages out to just $6.59 a month, but like everybody, I won’t give it a single thought until it’s due and then I have to scramble to make sure I have $79 to hand over.
Yes, there are older people on fixed incomes who can’t afford one penny more in a bill, but I’m sure the county will make some exception starting at age 65 so they won’t be hit that hard. They’ll do it in the interest of getting re-elected, but they’ll do it.
And, if you want, you can vote them all out in 2022. It happened after the first wheel tax was put in, and history has been known to repeat itself. But the new people you put in the job will just do something else that ticks you off.