Wilson County plans to spend $35,000 for a public relations campaign to inform Wilson County residents about the upcoming referendum on a sales tax increase.
The Wilson County Budget Committee approved the amount at its meeting Thursday night. In addition to the $35,000, Wilson County Schools also committed $35,000, according to county finance director Aaron Maynard. He also agreed to contact Lebanon Special School District officials to see if they would contribute, as well.
The county hired a public relations firm to produce flyers and other messaging media to saturate the county with the advantages to approve the tax. The current tax is 9.25 percent. The county put a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot to raise the amount 0.5 percent to 9.75 percent, which is the maximum allowed by state law.
“They’re thinking they can pull off a direct mail campaign, a social media campaign, etc., for around $65,000-$70,000,” Maynard said. “I think we can handle about $35,000 without having to do a budget amendment. Here’s why I want to do it without a budget amendment. I can’t get a budget amendment until Oct. 15 [when the Wilson County Commission meets]. By Oct. 15, [the public relations firm’s] time to develop the materials is virtually gone.”
He added, “I thought it best to ask this committee for us and the school system to pay funds to the public relations firm.”
Maynard stressed the campaign would be strictly a public education program. He planned to call the public relations firm as soon as Thursday night’s meeting was over to tell them whether the money was approved.
“Obviously, we’re talking about Nov.6 for the referendum, so they have to get to work,” Maynard said.
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said the reason the county proposed a referendum was because “[the county commission] sat around and tried to figure out how to fund a new [high] school. Through your help, and others’ help, we were able to get that done without a tax increase.”
Hutto said the commissioners also knew there was a $30 million jail expansion “coming down the pike. We have to educate and incarcerate. We have no options on those two. We have $670 million of projected costs for school problems. We don’t know [that we’ll have to spend that much]. There are renovations in there that may have to happen. The population has to happen. We don’t know, but we know that’s there.”
Hutto said, in his mind, “The commission is saying we’d like to increase the sales tax. They are simply saying, ‘hey, we know we have debt coming. We would love to avoid a property tax in the future. We want the public to decide how to fund our debt.”
He said the sales tax increase would mean consumers would spend an extra nickel on a $10 sale.
“If they go to the polls and say, ‘no, we don’t want to do that,’ then it’s back in the commission’s lap to say, ‘you said the sales tax is a ‘no,’ so the next time we want to fund something, it’ll have to be through the adequate facilities tax, a property tax increase or the wheel tax,” Hutto said. “That’s the only options you’ve got.”
Hutto said the county also contacted organizations that support county government and some of the money may be returned from the groups after the fact. He said the materials sent by the public relations firm would strictly be to educate the public.
“Out of the $35,000 we spend, we cannot not ask the people to vote, ‘yes,’” Hutto said. “That’s against the law. We’re only educating people on this is why you need to vote. This is why we’re asking you to vote.”
Hutto said commissioners and others spoke to groups such as Rotary to let them know about the increase and the benefits it would have, if passed.
“I’d like to see each of the commissioners speak and say ‘here’s why it’s out there,’” he said. Maynard made a PowerPoint presentation for the commissioners to share with others.
“I read a letter to the editor the other day that had a lot of errors in it,” Hutto said. The letter writer said that the county was planning to use the increase to fund the new school. “That’s wrong. You guys have already funded the school. We are being proactive to say, ‘how to we address the future?’ We’ll be able to fund some things with growth money, but not everything. So, we’re giving the public the opportunity [to vote].”
The referendum will be on the Nov. 6 ballot with the municipal, state and federal elections. There are currently 82,913 registered voters in Wilson County. The last day to register to vote is Tuesday. Those who want to register to vote may do so in person at the Wilson County Election Commission office in Lebanon or at wilsonelections.com.