Proposal to hike Shelby County wheel tax to fund MATA improvements narrowly passes commission committee after spirited debate

Updated: Jan. 8, 2020 at 6:58 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County Commissioners narrowly advanced a proposal to hike the county’s wheel tax by $20 to pay for millions in improvements for MATA service. But the vote didn’t come easily and the proposal’s future appears shaky.

Wednesday’s discussion was standing-room only. The committee advanced the proposal downstairs by a vote of five to four, with two abstentions. But it needs nine votes in full commission on Monday to pass, and it has to pass with at least nine votes twice, according to the county attorney’s office.

“It’s important that everybody understand what we’re trying to do and what the commission is trying to do. I applaud the commissioners for their questions. I recognize their frustrations,” said Gary Rosenfeld, MATA President and CEO.

A more than three-hour discussion on county government significantly funding MATA ended Wednesday afternoon with a razor-thin victory that ensures the latest proposal advances but gives it a slim chance to pass the full commission.

Some commissioners sounded off, saying a proposal to hike the county wheel tax to pay for MATA investments is not the fix that’s needed.

“This is frustration. We all want transit, but we need a plan,” said Commissioner Amber Mills. “It needs to come to us. Here’s the plan. Everything answered. Before we try to pish-posh this.”

“We need to have to whole thing together. I’m not sure I’ve seen that yet,” said Commissioner Michael Whaley.

The morning started with Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris bringing officials from the Greater Memphis Chamber, FedEx and Baptist Healthcare to vouch for the business case for expanded transit. It quickly pivoted to a new commission proposal we told you about earlier this week, that would raise the existing $50 county wheel tax, paid through car registrations, by $20 that could add $11 to $12 million for transit.

But advocates for transit expansion won't call the funds they're asking from you a tax.

“We are advocating for a fee to be able to better our transit system,” said Britney Thornton, with MICAH. “The pass favorably is a step in the right direction. What concerns us is that we need nine votes. We see clearly there is room for us to be concerned about Monday.”

Last fall, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris presented a sustainability fee proposal to the commission that they never advanced. His proposal would’ve charged households a $145 fee after their second vehicle registration to fund transit improvements.

The new wheel tax proposal, sponsored by Commissioners Willie Brooks, Tami Sawyer, and Van Turner, would hike the wheel tax from $50 to $70 with the extra $20 going to fund MATA service improvements, yielding $11 to 12 million. An amendment approved Wednesday would leave the hike out for those making $30,000 annually.

“This is not an easy issue,” said Commissioner Eddie Jones. “Give us and allow us that opportunity to vet this thing out.”

MATA officials acknowledged Wednesday’s passage with a slim majority showed there is work to be done before Monday’s full commission meeting. But it may be too late.

“If it fails, we go back to the drawing board,” said Rosenfeld, “This is $10 million of a $30 million need, so we’re going to have a list of things we bring to the commission in an attempt to fund.”

Commissioners meet Monday, Jan. 13 at 3 p.m.

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