The petition drive to require a referendum on funding for the proposed Wilson County Expo Center is progressing well, according to Jeff Hartline, vice secretary of the Wilson County Republican Party's executive committee.
The GOP group is spearheading the petition drive, which is targeting the bond issue that the Wilson County Commission approved by a 17-6 vote at its regular May meeting last week, after approving the project itself by a similar 17-7 vote in April.
Hartline said in an interview Wednesday that about 80 volunteers are out seeking signatures to submit to the county asking for the referendum. They would need at least 6,300 signatures to require the countywide vote be held, according to Hartline, but he said he doesn't know exactly how many the group has collected so far.
According to the Tennessee Codes Annotated, at least 10 percent of registered county or municipal voters must sign the petition. After that, the county election commission must certify the number of registered voters within 15 days of receiving the petition as valid signatures.
Under state law, the petitions must be completed and submitted to County Clerk Jim Goodall by June 8, which is 20 days after the commission's vote to approve the bond issue, Hartline added.
JECDB review endorses MTSU feasibility study
The executive director of the Wilson County Joint Economic and Community Development Board (JECDB), G. C. Hixson, says that after looking at the evidence, he favors building the Expo Center. He expressed his support in a March letter to State Sen. Mae Beavers (R-17) as follows: "The decision to support this venture is based on the review of findings from the Middle Tennessee State University study, the analysis of its costs and discussions with elected officials and citizens of the community."
Hixson concluded that "the project can improve both the community's livability and marketability while also providing a positive economic impact throughout the entire community."
Meanwhile, Hartline says he is certain that the center would be a losing proposition, and he doesn't believe the expo centers in other counties make any money. "It behooves the county to pay attention to finances," said the Mt. Juliet Republican, who also serves as executive director of the conservative "watchdog" non-profit, Tennessee Spotlight.
Mt. Juliet Mayor Ed Hagerty has said the Expo Center would make money if it were located in his city rather than on land the county already owns at the Ward Agricultural Center.
But Hartline said that isn't his own position: "I would be against it if it were in Mt. Juliet, too."
Sales tax impact 'unproven'
Sales tax figures from the Tennessee Department of Revenue provided by the JECDB show that the Wilson County Fair's purported tax impact "is not proven," Hartline says when Expo Center supporters compare the potential impact of the proposed center with that of the fair.
However, since no figures are available for a time before there was a county fair, it's hard to tell what the figures really mean. All the numbers definitely show is that sales tax revenues have been steadily growing since 2010 and that nine of the 12 months in each year have fairly similar revenues each month, with a jump in January which reflects Christmas spending and a winter slump in February and March.
As he has done over the past few weeks, Hartline continues to say that building an Expo Center is not the sort of job that government should be doing, but instead, the job should be left to the private sector.
'Pay for use' criticized
"County government exists to provide services to the entire county, i.e., schools, law enforcement, fire protection, roads, courts, parks, etc.," Hartline writes in a flyer in support of his committee's petition drive. "It does not exist to build party facilities that its citizens must pay to use."
Hartline's flyer also asks, "If this is such a great idea, why hasn't private investment already built it?"
In response, District 14 Commissioner Jeff Joines, an Expo Center supporter, points out that the county government does a lot of things that Hartline disapproves of governments doing.
"We spend money on senior citizens, on the baseball fields, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, a lot of things like that," Joines said. "We spend it to make our community better. I think the county does need to be in this kind of business."
The two men also disagree is over what type of flooring the planned Expo Center would have.
Hartline says repeatedly that he is sure the Expo Center will have "a dirt floor," and that $14 million is too much to spend "so Jeff Joines' daughter will have a place to ride her horse," referring to the estimated construction cost plus interest on the bond issue.
'Not a dirt floor'
However, Joines said the plans for the Expo Center call for a concrete sub-floor with a wood and tile overlay finishing it off.
The architectural plan offered by Micheal Manous of Lebanon, the architect for the proposed new structure, supports Joines' view of the case. In fact, Manous told the county commission that if they wanted to have horse shows, rodeos and similar events, they needed to plan on using a different venue.
Hartline also says the Expo Center will take money away from school building funds.
Again, Joines says that isn't so.
"Since I've been on commission, we've spent $200 million on schools," he said. "And we've built onto WEMA, added fire stations, bought fire trucks and police cars."
Bonds 'most economical'
Joines said that the county has plans to build more schools starting this year. "But we try to do it all in the most economical way," he said. "That means we have the money in our debt service fund to do this. Bonds are the least expensive way to do this job."
He added that since a super-majority of the county commission has already voted to build the center, if a referendum vetoes the bond issue and the county can't build it using bonds, the county will have to use some other method like capital outlay or notes of anticipation. But Joines promised, "We will build this center."
Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.