Prompted by a challenging fiscal reality that makes funding county highway fixes difficult, Eau Claire County supervisors appear to be moving toward adopting a $30 per-vehicle registration fee to help pay to repair those roads.
Of the 28 current supervisors, 14 told the Leader-Telegram they back or are likely to approve a measure that would raise an estimated $2.39 million annually to increase repairs on county highways and reduce future debt for those upgrades.
Five others — Pat LaVelle, Robin Leary, Ray Henning, Gary Gibson and Sue Miller — said they oppose the proposal. Lydia Boerboom, Brandon Buchanan and Kevin Stelljes said they are undecided about the issue, and the remaining six supervisors were not available for comment.
Fifteen affirmative votes are necessary to adopt the fee.
A vehicle registration fee to help pay for highway maintenance has been discussed on and off by county officials for nearly two decades, but it has never been adopted. However, the current attempt seems to have more support among supervisors.
Supporters of the measure acknowledge the vehicle registration fee, commonly referred to as a wheel tax, it isn’t a popular item with many county residents. But trying to pay for county road work via growing annual borrowing isn’t financially feasible in upcoming years, they said.
“We have to do something differently,” Supervisor Bert Moritz said. “I don’t think we have a lot of options.”
Supervisor Colleen Bates sees the proposal similarly.
“The fact of the matter is ... what we’re doing just isn’t working,” Bates said. “We have to do something, and we don’t have a recourse except to adopt (a vehicle registration fee).”
The issue will be introduced at today’s County Board meeting but is unlikely to be discussed. It is scheduled for action at the board’s July 17 meeting. If approved, the vehicle registration fee would take effect Jan. 1. The fee would come in addition to the $75 annual charge for owning a vehicle in Wisconsin.
The county fee would be charged to owners of the approximately 79,000 vehicles registered here. Trucks weighing 8,000 pounds or more would be exempt from the fee as state licensing charges for those vehicles are costly.
After ranking near the bottom of the state in terms of road conditions several years ago, Eau Claire County officials have boosted spending to repair county highways to improve them. But doing so has required more borrowing, which has led to higher interest payments on loans. Continued borrowing at that rate isn’t feasible, they said.
“You can only keep borrowing for so long before that is no longer sustainable,” Supervisor Stella Pagonis said. “If the roads are a high priority like county residents say they are ... it seems to me this is what we need to do.”
Other supervisors offered similar sentiments. Given that state-imposed tax levy limits cap annual spending increases, borrowing has been the only viable option to improve roads to the level needed, they said, noting long-term borrowing at relatively high levels will soon stretch the budget to its breaking point.
As evidence, they said, funding concerns about this year’s county budget prompted a $2 million reduction in road reconstruction spending, reducing that total to $4.9 million. The county also is spending $4.78 million this year for road maintenance.
Supervisors Jerry Wilkie and Jim Dunning said they see no other option for funding continued county road repairs other than adopting the fee.
“I don’t like having to pay $30 more for each of our two vehicles,” Wilkie said, “but I also drive on the roads and have to support them.”
Dunning concurred, saying while borrowing is exempt from state revenue limits, “when we have to pay the interest (on road repair loans), something else won’t get done.”
Several supervisors said they generally support a vehicle registration fee but expressed concerns about its impact on people with limited incomes. Supervisor Martha Nieman said a reduced fee for low-income residents could be discussed.
“There is an argument that this hurts poor people because they pay the same amount as someone with lots of money,” Supervisor Joe Knight said. “That is true ... yet at the same time this is a user fee, and I feel like it is something we need to do to ensure we have money for road repairs.”
Not everyone backs adopting a county vehicle registration fee. Leary and Henning said they oppose it in part because they believe the state Legislature and not the County Board should bump up funding to fix roads.
“It just seems to me the governor and the Legislature need to step up,” Leary said.
Miller said her opposition is about fairness. She and LaVelle said they are concerned that charging owners of cars and smaller trucks the fee but not larger trucks doesn’t make sense.
“I have some real reservations about the cost and the exemption of the larger vehicles (from the fee),” Miller said. “Smaller vehicles are not doing nearly the damage as those larger trucks.”
Gibson is among those who question the $30 per-vehicle price tag. While he said he opposes any vehicle registration fee, citizens might be amenable to a $10 charge.
Among the 27 local governments — including eight counties — in Wisconsin that have vehicle registration fees, the $30 figure in Eau Claire would tie Milwaukee County and the city of Milton as the highest in the state.
“Thirty dollars may not seem like much,” Gibson said, “but people are paying lots of fees like that all the time. I don’t know that some people are going to be able to afford yet another cost.”
Regardless of supervisors’ stances on the issue, Miller and others said they expect plenty of debate about the fee when County Board discusses the topic next month.
“This issue has been discussed for a long time, and it’s going to be interesting to see where it goes this time,” Miller said.