Wheel Tax Solution for County MATA Funding Off to Shaky Start



No piece of county legislation has had so checkered a history
County Mayor Lee Harris listens to County Commission's discussion of his funding proposal for MATA. - JB
  • JB
  • County Mayor Lee Harris listens to County Commission's discussion of his funding proposal for MATA.
as that which endowed the county’s wheel tax, originally created as a levy upon Shelby County motorists to pay for educational construction projects that the county’s budget lacked funding for.

The tax, originally $25 per motor vehicle and later doubled, was unpopular right away, but it became a dependable source of political controversy when the county commission, at regular intervals, began allocating portions of it for purposes other than schools — such as public housing, road construction, and debt retirement.

Now the tax may be subject to amendment again — as a source of funding for a new Shelby County contribution to the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA). The county input has been proposed by County Mayor Lee Harris for an expansion effort that would help bridge the distances from home to work for county residents lacking in their own means of transportation, and serve the ends of industrial and community development, in general.

Under the terms of an ordinance sponsored by Commissioners Willie Brooks, Van Turner, and Tami Sawyer and discussed at length in committee on Wednesday, the fee charged county car-owners would be raised from $50 per vehicle to $70, with the add-on $20 to be regarded as a separate fund earmarked for MATA purposes. The proposal was amended to exempt seniors and county residents with incomes less than $30,000 annually.

Among those testifying in favor of the ordinance were Chamber of Commerce CEO Beverly Robertson, Chamber board chair Willie Gregory, FedEx regional president Richard Smith, FedEx Express regional president, and Baptist Memorial Healthcare president and CEO Jason Little. Testimony on the ordinance’s behalf was also heard from numerous members of an overflow audience that required additional folding chairs in the commission’s 6th floor quarters at the Vasco Smith Building.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic, however. County Clerk Wanda Halbert pointed out that bookkeeping for the arrangement could become unwieldy, and several commissioners remained unconvinced. Those voting No were commission chair Mark Billingsley, David Bradford, Edmund Ford Jr., and Amber Mills, the latter, who represents suburban North Shelby County, dismissing the measure as an additional burden upon the taxpayer, calling it “pish posh.”

The five commissioners supporting the ordinance were Brooks, Turner, Sawyer, Mickell Lowery, and Eddie Jones. Commissioners Brandon Morrison and Michael Whaley abstained.

The 5-4-2 winning margin for the ordinance was hardly reassuring for supporters, since a supermajority of 9 Commission members will be required when the measure comes before the regular Commission meeting on Monday.

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