Sales tax increase referendum met with criticism by Sullivan Co. commissioners

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BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL)- A potential referendum for a sales tax hike received negative feedback from several members of the Sullivan County Commission on Friday. At a special-called meeting, commissioners discussed a resolution to hold a county-wide vote to increase the sales tax to 9.75%. A first vote for the measure is expected at next Thursday’s commission meeting.

Commissioner Sam Jones, the resolution’s sponsor, said the majority of Tennessee’s 95 counties have a sales tax rate of 9.75%. The sales tax rate is currently 9.5% in Kingsport and 9.25% in Bristol and unincorporated areas of the county.

“We’re the only split county in the state of Tennessee,” said Jones.

If voters approve an increase, the Sullivan County sales tax rate will be 9.75% – becoming equal in all parts of the county. This means Kingsport shoppers will pay an extra 25 cents for every $100 spent. For Bristol and unincorporated areas – it would be an extra 50 cents for every $100.

“If we could disseminate that it’s only 25 cents out of $100, it sounds much lighter,” said Commissioner Joe Herron, who spoke favorably of the resolution.

The Sullivan County Commission 5/15/20

But most commissioners came out strongly against the measure.

“We cannot afford to keep raising taxes over and over and over,” said Commissioner Todd Broughton.

“We should not take our struggles and put it on the backbone of taxpayers in this county,” Commissioner Mark Vance said.

“We can’t continue to sit here and raise taxes and stuff when we don’t even know when people are going to have a job,” said Commissioner Angie Stanley.

“Obviously there’s a cool wind blowing. That’s a euphemism for – there’s not a lot of support for it,” Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said after the meeting.

Venable said it would likely be several more months until the county has a better idea of how much sales tax revenue has been lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several commissioners said they spoke to constituents facing hard times, who said a sales tax increase would only add to their financial struggles.

Other commissioners said the alternative to a sales tax hike might be raising property taxes.

“What we need to realize, everyone’s talking about how hard times are. People aren’t going out,” said Commissioner Colette George. “We’re going to have a lot less money to work with. I’m like a lot of you guys. I don’t want to make the decision and vote for a property increase. I think our citizens should have some say.”

Jones said raising the sales tax rate would route more money towards the county’s three school systems, which receive half the revenue from local sales tax.

He also said it could help make up for tourism dollars lost in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Revenue that comes into the county through tourism, we really don’t collect what the potential is,” said Jones.

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable also supports holding the referendum. He said county budget cuts will likely come in the future to make up some of the tax revenue shortfall. But he said a sales tax increase was being considered even before the pandemic.

“We just know that the schools will have a shortfall in revenue. This is just preparing for the eventuality that they have to have that money,” said Venable.

If the resolution passes at next Thursday’s meeting, a second vote will likely be held in June. Venable said the resolution would likely not pass in time to make election submission deadlines for an August referendum. Instead, Sullivan County voters would see the sales tax increase on the November ballot.

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