Thursday, July 19, 2018

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Eau Claire County wheel tax debate swirls

Vehicle registration fees aren’t popular by any stretchof the imagination. But facing mounting debt to maintain roads, Eau Claire County supervisors are seriouslyeyeing the option to the tune of $30 per vehicle.

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    Cars drive along Hastings Way on Friday in Eau Claire. Eau Claire County officials are considering adopting a $30 per-vehicle fee as soon as next month to help pay for upkeep of county roads. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

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    Vehicles drive along Clairemont Avenue in Eau Claire on Friday. Eau Claire County officials are considering adopting a $30 per-vehicle fee as soon as next month to help pay for upkeep of county roads. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

    Staff photo by Elena Dawson
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    Kelley

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When the Chippewa County Board voted in September 2014 to approve a $10 per-vehicle registration fee beginning the next year to raise money for clearing roads of snow in winter months, county Highway Department officials breathed a sigh of relief.

The decision was made as the county faced a nearly $2 million deficit for maintaining its 489 miles of roads during winter months. Thanks to the registration fee — commonly referred to as a wheel tax — the county has received about $540,000 each year for that purpose. 

That money has paid for not only snowplowing county highways for the past four winters but has allowed the department to accrue a budget surplus of several hundred thousand dollars.  

“It has done exactly what we wanted it to do,” said Chuck Hull, a Chippewa County supervisor and Chippewa Falls City Council member. “It has made up the deficit and allowed us to maintain our roads better.”

Faced with similar challenges paying for county highway maintenance amid shrinking state aid for that purpose and growing expenses for other local government operations, seven other counties in Wisconsin and 19 other municipalities statewide have adopted vehicle registration fees, according to the state Department of Transportation. 

Eau Claire County could soon join them. Last week county officials announced they are proposing a $30 per-vehicle registration fee that could be adopted as soon as next month. The fee would generate a projected $2.39 million annually to be used for road repairs and maintenance.

Officials in such places as Milwaukee and Dane counties, which charge $30 and $28 annual fees, respectively, are among the larger local governmental bodies in the state that have adopted the fee to come up with extra money to pay for road fixes. 

Other cities, such as Appleton, Beloit, Janesville and Platteville, also have done so. In each of those locations, residents pay $20 annually for each vehicle registered. The fee comes in addition to a $75 per-vehicle cost charged by the state each year for owning a car or truck in Wisconsin. 

Some smaller communities struggling with road upkeep also have adopted a wheel tax. Places such as the town of Arena in southern Wisconsin and villages such as Eden, Iron Ridge, Prairie du Sac and Tigerton also have implemented the fee to better repair roadways. 

Counties adopting a vehicle registration fee in this part of the state are Chippewa and St. Croix. Without the additional money collected via the fee, Chippewa County roads would be in rough shape, highway commissioner Brian Kelley said. 

In fact, even with that funding, the county struggles to maintain its roads, he said. Vehicle registration fee money in the county can only be used for winter road maintenance, he said. While that money frees up additional dollars for summertime road repairs, it isn’t enough to keep up with the maintenance schedule needed to prevent county highways from deteriorating, Kelley said. 

Given current funding, the Highway Department paves eight to 10 miles of county roads per year. To keep up with wear and tear, between 20 and 30 miles should be fixed annually, Kelley said. 

“Even with this added money, we are definitely falling behind,” he said. 

St. Croix County highway commissioner Robbie Krejci painted a similar picture. That county adopted a vehicle registration fee a decade ago and that additional money has played a key part in maintaining roads there, he said. 

The fee generates about $800,000 annually and is used for road maintenance and reconstruction. County road repairs have averaged about $3.5 million in recent years, meaning the fee pays for nearly one-fourth of those costs. 

“It is critical,” Krejci said of revenue generated by the fee. “Our road conditions are in a tough way in Wisconsin, and we are looking for revenue any place we can.”

Money generated by the fee is critical to helping fix roads before they get in a state of severe disrepair, Krejci said. Making upgrades before roads are in too bad of shape saves significant money, he said. 

But doing so requires having enough funding, and that has proven to be a growing struggle amid shrinking state aid and growing county expenditures, Krejci said. After significant cuts to state transportation aids to counties in 2011-12, funding in St. Croix County is just now reaching the level in 2010, he said. In the meantime, road construction costs during that time have risen significantly.

“As we become pinched by those dollars, we just can’t keep up,” he said. 

Fee opposition

While additional money for roads funding would seem to be a good situation for local governments, the vehicle registration fee is anything but welcome in many locations. 

Count Chippewa County among places where the fee has prompted the ire of many residents. People living there objected to the fee before and since its implementation, saying the county should be able to come up with money to keep up its roads without charging an extra fee.

Their disdain for the measure influenced the 2016 County Board election, when three of the eight supervisors who approved the vehicle registration fee — board Chairman Paul Michels, Vice Chairman Henry Shakal and Supervisor Mike Leisz — were voted out in large part because of people’s frustrations with the fee. Glen Sikorski and Steve Gerrish are the only two who voted for the fee who are still supervisors.     

The wheel tax “had some very vocal opponents,” Hull said, “and led to a shake-up on the board. There are a lot of people here who don’t like paying anything they see as a new tax.” 

Local government officials in other places that have adopted the fee acknowledged various degrees of opposition to it. Since Eau Claire County officials announced the proposed fee here, many supervisors said they have received an earful from people against it. 

Supporters of the measure said county borrowing for road maintenance isn’t sustainable into the future and enacting the fee would save money in the long run because it would reduce interest paid on loans for road work. 

County officials have discussed possibly adopting a vehicle registration fee for the past two decades, but it hasn’t happened, in part because of concerns the public is against it, said Supervisor Pat LaVelle, an opponent of the $30 proposed fee. 

“There’s a reason we haven’t done this before,” LaVelle said. “People don’t like it.” 

If Eau Claire Countyapproves the $30 fee, it would tie Milwaukee County and the city of Milton in southern Wisconsin as the highestsuch fee charged in the state.  

Hull said he wasn’t surprised to hear of opposition to the plan in Eau Claire. Even the $10 fee in Chippewa County is too costly for some, he said. 

“Ten dollars really isn’t a huge burden,” Hull said. “It seems like it’s more the principal of it that gets people upset.”

Krejci was hired to oversee the St. Croix County Highway Department in May 2017 and said he doesn’t hear complaints about the fee as he had when he worked previously for Chippewa County and the city of Chippewa Falls.

“It’s just not something people seem to talk about,” Krejci said when asked about opposition to the fee in St. Croix County. “Maybe they realize how badly we need that money.”

Cost concerns

In an effort to garner support for the vehicle registration fee in Chippewa County, supporters agreed to end it after five years. The fee is scheduled to stop at the end of next year, and Hull said it seems unlikely his fellow supervisors would vote to extend it.   

That notion has Hull worried. Without a significant increase in state transportation aids, he doesn’t know how county officials will come up with money to keep roads from deteriorating once fee money is gone. 

County officials and others across Wisconsin have called on Gov. Scott Walker and the state Legislature to address the situation in the form of a higher gas tax or some other method, but so far that hasn’t happened. 

“We’re just putting Band-Aids on our roads now,” Hull said, noting the county has discussed the possibility of doing less maintenance on lightly traveled rural roads and perhaps letting some become gravel. “Without more money, it seems our only choices may be to either borrow money to fix roads or let some roads deteriorate. Neither one is a real solution.” 

Concerns about continued borrowing for road repairs have prompted the proposed vehicle registration fee adoption in Eau Claire County, many supervisors said. Given a state-imposed spending limit and growing costs for many county programs, county officials have little choice but to adopt a vehicle registration fee or watch roads fall into disrepair, Supervisor Stella Pagonis said. 

“We’ve borrowed money for (repairs), but we can’t keep doing that forever,” she said. “People are realizing that under the current funding situation, we don’t have other options than a vehicle registration fee.” 

Contact: 715-830-5911,julian.emerson@ecpc.com


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