Although some Jackson County commissioners spoke in a public hearing Tuesday about the potential benefits that could come from a 5-cents-per-gallon increase in the existing local option gas tax, board member Dr. Willie Spires stood alone when it came to a vote on the matter.
After some discussion, with no commissioner speaking opposition to it and some speaking of its benefits, Spires offered a motion to make it so. But it died for lack of a second. Spires said he was surprised, based on the comments some fellow board members made prior to the vote, and which some had also made in the past.
In the discussion, Commissioner Eric Hill said he thought a gas tax could be a way to shift some of the financial burden of county government operations from ad valorem taxpayers to a larger field of contributors, and board member James Peacock suggested a "sunsetting", or time-limited, version of the increase if it were to be implemented. But they, board member Chuck Lockey and board chairman Clint Pate, who had previously spoken of the potential benefits of an increase, declined to second the motion, an act which would have brought it to a vote.
It would have taken a super-majority of four affirmative votes to have passed via board action.
During the discussion, county Administrator Wilanne Daniels had told the board that staff had tested the waters in talks with municipalities and civic organizations in recent days and had received generally supportive responses for the increase.
At the first public hearing on the matter in late May, three people in the crowd had spoken opposing it, with only one speaking in favor. On Tuesday, former county administrator Ernie Padgett spoke at length about why he supported the notion.
Graceville City Commissioner Tim Welborn was in the crowd and came to the podium to speak. He didn’t give an opinion on whether the increase should be implemented, although he did say he thought that, if it were, it should be by voter referendum rather than board action. He focused instead on what he thought local governments should do with the money if it did pass.
If the board had approved the increase, it could raise more than $1.4 million per year to help the county and their municipalities purchase, maintain, repair and/or improve road and bridge assets.
The county would have received a 70-percent share, with municipalities getting 30 percent, combined, split according to population.
Wellborn said he thought that, if the measure were to pass, that the county and the cities should pool the money it would generate and put it toward the purchase of road equipment, to be paid for over a three-year period of the increase, that all would share and rotate in and out of communities at six-week intervals to pave roads. He also wanted each municipality and the county to assign one employee each to make up a joint road improvement team.
Some commissioners asked more about that, but Commissioner Eric Hill pointed out that $1.4 million wouldn’t go very far in paving the more than 800 miles of dirt roads in the county. The money, he said, might cover three miles.
Lockey said that the county would have a different plan for the money – to supplement the road and bridge department generally – pointing out that money has to be taken out every year from the general fund to shore up that department. He said he didn’t want any citizen to be expecting a marked increase in paving, were the increase to have passed.
Wellborn went on to say that his town will be having a special workshop with a representative of an equipment provider, Caterpillar, and invited county board members to attend. He persisted in that invitation and did get an affirmative from Hill.
And during the gas tax discussion, Lockey dropped another bit of news in his remarks – the county, he said, will likely be forced to significantly increase the ad valorem tax rate this year because of expected reductions in property tax values due to the damage from Hurricane Michael. He didn’t elaborate and no other commissioner commented on that possibility.