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Commissioners Hint at $38 Wheel Tax Increase: Possible increase to fund jail addition & vocational school

By Misty Green

The governing body of Macon County assembled on March 18th and the majority voted to proceed with looking into financing the jail expansion and the new vocational school, with hints of a funding mechanism being a $38 Wheel Tax increase in the coming months.  

3-19/24 USDA Resolution for Jail Addition cost increase was placed on the agenda as number 10 (2).

“Okay, the second thing,” Macon County Mayor Steve Jones stated, “And Michelle, it wasn’t on the agenda, but it needs to be passed before you can do the resolution, and that would be the fact of entertaining a motion to approve the $34,700,000 jail construction contract, this is what we discussed at the last meeting, so what is the will of the body?”

“I’ll make that motion,” District 5 Commissioner Dan Hill exclaimed and was seconded by District 8 Commissioner Kyle Petty.

“We will have to borrow $11M,” Mayor Jones said, “But we will have to do that next and go with the contract that was presented, and I understand, they are in the process right now of saving us some funds on that.”

One commissioner stated, “I think this was started before I got on the commission, so how are we going to pay for it?”

“By the state inmates,” Mayor Jones replied.

Calling the roll to cast their vote, the following commissioners voted yes: Justin Dyer, Dan Hill, Barry Marshall, Michael Slayton, Jeff Hughes, Barry King, Kyle Petty, Wendell Jones, Jarhea Wilmore, Helen Hesson, Larry West, Todd Gentry, Keith Newberry, Mike Jenkins, and Benton Bartley. Commissioners voting no included: Bobby Ray King, Phillip Snow, Ethan Flippin, and Billy Wilmore. Absent: Tony Wix.

“Now, the 3-19/24 USDA Resolution for the jail addition for $11M to be financed and will all be paid by the state inmates boarding fees from the state,” Mayor Jones said, “It will take about 100 inmates and will bring in roughly $1.9M.”

Macon County Sheriff Joey Wilburn told the governing body that once the jail becomes state-accredited, the state inmates fee will increase by $3 per day and profit more revenue. The resolution passed, recalling the same tallying of the votes in the prior motion.

Moving on in the agenda, the issue of the new vocational school was next to discuss.

“I don’t really have anything, Mr. Jones,” Macon County Director of Schools Shawn Carter stated.

“We have put in your packet about the expected cost of the new vocational school,” Mayor Jones said.

“Well, you told me that the other day, that it was going to be discussed, and I saw that it was on the agenda, so I was just curious as to what everybody thought about it,” Carter said.

“If ya’ll will just think back, I guess it was this time last year, I came and we started the discussion,” Carter said, “And I had it at $3.35 per square foot, that was just for the building, that wasn’t for any of the insulators that it takes to build the building, which I did tell ya’ll at the last meeting that we added a couple of extra rooms for anticipated growth and the cost per square foot is higher than it was a year ago… But, the numbers that you have got are from, and I couldn’t tell you the name of the construction company, but they just built a vocational school in another Upper Cumberland, so those numbers are not exact, but will be close to what the cost to build it.”

Mayor Jones then reminded all that TCAT would be pulling out in two years, if another school was not in progress.

“Right now, all we need to do,” Mayor Jones said, “Is figure out a funding mechanism… And the only way to fund it is a wheel tax increase, and it will take a $38 increase wheel tax increase.

“How long is that number good for,” Commissioner Barry King asked.

“This is just an estimated cost,” Jones replied, “So, it might be a little less or a little more than $380, and you won’t know until you bid it out… Each step that we go through here on this, ya’ll have to approve, so what you would be approving here tonight, is to start trying to figure out a funding mechanism… I can tell you, I hope the interest rate is going to be around 3.5%… It was 3.75% and we have been working with the Raymond James folks and it looks like 3.5%… Cost $898,083.26 a year payment… If you went $25,000 x $36 (wheel tax) it would generate $900,000… If you went 24,000 tags at $38, that would be $912,000, and then you would have the funds to pay for it.”

“I talked to ya’ll about the need for it,” Director Carter stated, “And there is really nothing else that I can say that will influence your decision, I just hope ya’ll understand just how many kids this does impact… And these are the kids that, you all know, that kids who go to college, very few of them come back here… Very few come back here and live… They stay where they went to school at… The kids who stay here and go to vocational school usually remain a citizen here in Macon County, more so than the kids who go to 4-year institutions… Past history holds true… And for a lot of kids, their interest in vocational school is the only reason they haven’t dropped out of school… Ya’ll are going to do what you think you need to do, and I respect that, but before you decide, just look at your grandkids, or nieces and nephews… Some of them and some of ya’ll were also vocational school kids and just think of how your life could have been different, had you not had that opportunity… And if we haven’t started something, in two years, TCAT will pull out.”

“It’s not going to get any cheaper,” Commissioner Helen Hesson exclaimed.

“It’s just going to get higher,” Director Carter agreed, “And none of you all caused this problem, but you have got a chance to improve it, and point it in the right direction… Is it going to hurt… Yes, I have four cars to tag myself.”

During the discussion, it was mentioned that night classes for adults were a possibility if it was built, as well as plans for offering a Criminal Justice course.

“I’ll make that motion,” Commissioner Larry West declared and was seconded by Kyle Petty.

“I’ll be looking at grants and seeing if we can get USDA funding and get it locked in,” Mayor Jones stated, and the motion carried by majority vote.

Voting NO: Michael Slayton, Bobby Ray King, Phillip Snow, Todd Gentry and Dan Hill.

After the meeting, District 1 Commissioner Phillip Snow explained that the proposal given a year ago, based on Upland’s Design Group for a vocational school was pitched at $12M, yet last night’s design released in the packet was projected to be $18.450M, with predictions that it could cost $25M in the end. 

“If this proposal is eventually voted on, it was advised that the only way to fund it would be for a $38 increase in the wheel tax… Last year, the proposed increase was for $32… The commission voted to proceed Monday night in a 5-15 vote… By the time it is bid out, the tax increase could be over $40… I still have the petition material to force a public referendum vote if the wheel tax is increased. There are two ways this can be passed, #1, If the commission votes to put the proposed increase directly to the voters or #2, If the commission votes to increase the wheel tax by a 2/3 vote at two consecutive commission meetings (14 voting aye) at which point, a petition attempt would have 30 days to gather enough valid signatures to place it on the ballot. Both measures could qualify for either the August ballot or on the November ballot, thus preventing a special election.”

Commissioner Snow explained his beef is with an increase in the wheel tax again, already paying right at $100 with no end in sight… “The jail expansion cost has now increased to $34M, and last night, a proposal was voted on to increase the funding for construction by $11M… The jail will supposedly be funded by state prisoner boarding, but the increased staffing will have to be partly offset by a tax increase… The Elementary School has not even gotten started and now the cost is $51M, which is an additional $17M over the original proposal and with one less grade… And $17M would build a Vocational School… So, now is the time to start calling your commissioners and showing up at the meetings to voice your concerns or get ready to pay up.”

In the Election of Notaries, the following were accepted by acclamation: Michelle Andrews, Melissa Evetts, and Kelly Woodard.

Commissioners approved the Highway Department to repair the entrance at the Macon County Justice Center.

An Emergency Services meeting will be held on Monday, March 25 at 6 p.m. to discuss EMS Rates and Fire Call Rates.

The next Committee of the Whole is scheduled for Monday, April 1 at 6:30 p.m. at the City of Lafayette Meeting Room.

A budget meeting will be held on Monday, March 25 at 6 p.m. at the City of Lafayette Meeting Room.

Macon County Government Offices will be closed on Friday, March 29, in observance of Good Friday.