Tax cap initiative fails

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Erik Wiatr (left) and Andy Fox discuss the origins of the tax cap referendum on the balcony of Fox’s downtown office. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

A conservative group’s bid to pass a referendum that would have made it nearly impossible for elected officials to raise the property tax rate in Knoxville has failed. 

That doesn’t, however, mean they’re giving up.

Officials with the group, the Knox Liberty Organization, say they ended up with only 3,934 of the 7,427-plus they needed to put the measure on the ballot for the November 2 general election.

If it had gotten on the ballot and been approved by voters, it would have prevented City Council and the mayor from raising the property tax rate above today’s level of $2.46 per $100 of assessed value without first putting the issue before the voting public. 

Erik Wiatr, a realtor and activist who chairs the Knox Liberty Organization, predicted that voters will be more inclined to support the measure if City Council remains largely unchanged after the coming election. 

That’s because he believes that Mayor Indya Kincannon and the current slate of (mostly liberal) Council members are planning to raise taxes in the future.

“If the current city council incumbents win this year’s election, it is likely there will be a large tax increase. If that happens, the motivation of voters to sign a future petition will increase, like was seen in Davidson County,” Wiatr said.

In fact, Wiatr said, the main impetus for the initiative was last year’s 34% property tax hike in Nashville.

“Davidson County experienced a 34% tax rate increase in June of 2020, so voters had a high level of self-motivation to sign their petition. Lessons were learned and the next Knoxville tax cap petition will be organized better,” he said.

One lesson that was learned during the recent campaign was the importance of face-to-face interactions with potential supporters, he said. 

“When talking to voters in person we received a positive response from most,” he said. “However, when a petition was mailed or left at the door of a voter, there appears to be low motivation at this time for voters to return the signed petition.”

He continued: “Self-motivation is a factor and if that is not there then more direct contact is necessary. The law requires original signatures, so digital signatures are not an option.” 

Some fairly wealthy and powerful Knox businessmen pumped over $6,600 into the ballot initiative, including Scott Davis, Scott Smith, Steve Maddox, Randy Burleson, Mike Chase and former state Rep. Martin Daniel (R). 

Although a Kincannon spokesperson didn’t reply to a request for comment, the mayor’s administration argued against the Knox Liberty Organization’s claims largely by pointing to her record.

“The City tax rate is nearly the lowest it’s been in over 30 years,” Kincannon said last month. “Capping the rate would threaten basic City services, especially fire, police, street maintenance, waste management, and more.  It’s our core public safety and public service programs that would be most at risk from the proposed referendum, which may not even be legal under the State constitution.”

According to figures provided recently by mayoral spokesperson Kristin Farley, the City’s tax rate is 27 cents lower than it was five years ago, the debt obligation is 30 percent lower than it was 20 years ago, and it looks like the economy is banging along at a healthy pace.    

“Building permits are on the rise. Projects valued at $697 million were issued permits in 2020, notably during a pandemic, when construction was expensive and supply chains impacted. The high level of construction happening in Knoxville clearly reflects major investment and economic growth,” said Farley.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on August 11, 2021