In the wake of two recent public hearings pertaining to the proposed implementation of four separate permissive license plate taxes, during which several members of the public expressed their belief that the Jackson County Commissioners should have been in attendance, a response has been issued.

The meetings in question, held June 14 and 17 at the Jackson County Courthouse Annex on Portsmouth Street in Jackson, were led by Jackson County Engineer Melissa Miller and involved four members of the public apiece. Though opinions on the permissive license plate tax issue differed among participants, common ground was able to be found on a few things: 1. Members of the public resoundingly expressed their belief that the Jackson County Commissioners, who will ultimately decide whether these taxes are enacted, should have been present for the two public hearings; 2. Now is not the best time to be asking the public for additional money; and 3. Jackson County’s roads – particularly the 300 miles’ worth for which Engineer Miller is responsible – are deteriorating.

After being made aware of these comments, the Commissioners made an official response to The Telegram on Wednesday morning, June 22.

“In reference to the people who were unsure why we weren’t here or thought we should’ve been, I want to stress to the public that this particular issue isn’t a new issue,” said Commission President Jon Hensler. “The Engineer has been presenting the data and coming to us for years regarding these permissive fees. We’re well aware of what those are, well aware of what the data shows, and we’ve had multiple conversations with the Engineer.”

Commissioner Hensler went on to say that Engineer Miller and other county officeholders use the Commissioners’ office to host these types of hearing/meetings “because it is a known public office space.”

“However, those meetings are held for the benefit of the public so they can become apprised of the information she’s sharing, ask questions, and have a dialogue,” he explained. “Those hearings are not for the benefit of the Commission. We’re well aware of what that information is. And yes, while we could attend as members of the public, it was not perceived as a need for us to be there. To those who said we should have been there to hear how our constituents feel about the Engineer’s proposal, we are accessible and available – all our numbers are published, we meet every Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. unless there’s a holiday, then we meet on Wednesday, and our meetings are open to the public. We did not purposefully avoid attending the hearings as to not hear any feedback from the public.”

In an effort to avoid any future confusion regarding the Commissioners’ involvement with these types of hearings, Commissioner Hensler said the group’s office will no longer be used to host them. Instead, he says officeholders will be asked to host these gatherings at their own offices or in another public place. 

With Engineer Miller and possibly members of the public expected to be present for the next meeting of the Commissioners on Tuesday morning, June 28, at which time the permissive license plate tax issue will be officially addressed, Commissioner Hensler wished to comment on some of the public’s concerns.

“We recognize that now, in this economy, things are not good,” he said. “Rising gas prices, inflation, higher grocery costs; we recognize that the average middle-class family right now in this country is struggling under [President Joe] Biden’s administration. This is not something being looked at on a whim or considered lightly. As I stated earlier, this has been a request from the Engineer for years and we are one of the few counties left in the state that has yet to enact something of this sort. No one wants to pay more fees or more taxes, but I believe all three of us have a proven record of fiscal conservancy and that we are good stewards of the county’s money. Looking down the road, what we have determined at this point is that we very well may be losing out on future opportunities by way of grants and investments in our communities because we are not willing to ask our people to pay less than $1.70 per month in a permissive fee. ($20 per year divided by 12). While things are bad, I have a hard time thinking this $1.70 a month is going to make or break people.”

Regarding the grant opportunities, Commissioner Hensler was referring to a point raised during both public hearings by Engineer Miller, when she explained that grant applications from the state are beginning to specifically ask if permissive fees have been enacted. Entities that have enacted the fees receive additional favorable points, she explained, making them more likely to be successfully funded, as they score higher overall on project requests. Commissioner Donnie Willis said that one question alone could account for up to five points out of a possible 15 total.

Despite the few complaints aired recently on this matter, the Commissioners noted the hundreds and even thousands of complaints the county fields each winter regarding potholes and busted tires. 

“The majority of our constituency, I believe, enjoys driving on asphalt roads,” Commissioner Hensler stated Wednesday. “Every winter, our office is plagued with complaints of holes in roads and busted tires. It’s clear our roads are in bad shape. The Engineer has agreed to pledge 100 percent of this money, when/if it come to fruition, to paving roads. I think $1.70 a month is a very small amount to be able to allocate over a half-million dollars a year strictly for paving.”

Commissioner Hensler likewise noted, as Engineer Miller has previously as well, that the Commissioners reserve the right to remove these permissive license plate taxes at any time and for any reason, if enacted.

As stated previously, this matter is expected to be voted upon during the Tuesday morning, June 28 meeting of the Commissioners, which will begin at 8:30 a.m. at 275 Portsmouth Street in Jackson.