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More state aid would follow proposed wheel tax for Eau Claire County

Transportation aid formula rewards municipalities for boosting road maintenance funding

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    Vehicles drive Friday along East Clairemont Avenue in Eau Claire. The drivers of many of those vehicles could be paying $30 more annually to operate their vehicles if a proposed vehicle registration fee is approved in Eau Claire County.

    Staff photo by Elena Dawson
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Approval of a proposed $30-per-vehicle registration fee in Eau Claire County would not only provide more funding to repair county roads but would boost state aid for that purpose as well. 

The state’s general transportation aids formula that supplements road fixes in Wisconsin local government units rewards those who spend more on that maintenance with increased funding, providing an incentive of sorts for keeping up roads. 

“The way the formula works, the more you invest in your highways, the more the state gives you to help with that,” Eau Claire County highway commissioner Jon Johnson said. 

Johnson said he is unsure how much added state aid the county would receive if the vehicle registration fee, commonly referred to as a wheel tax, is approved when the County Board is scheduled to discuss it at its July 17 meeting. 

The state aid formula for roads funding is based on a number of factors and can only increase or decrease by a limited amount each year, Johnson said. About 20 years ago the county received about $1 million in state aid yearly, a figure that reached $3.5 million this year after the county has increased highways funding significantly. 

“Right now we don’t know how much more state aid we would receive,” he said in relation to the vehicle registration fee. “But given the formula, it would grow some. It would certainly help.”

If adopted, the vehicle registration fee would raise a projected $2.39 million in added revenue annually to build roads and maintain existing ones. County officials have discussed the possibility of a fee for the past two decades but have never adopted it. 

Budget concerns that have prompted increased borrowing for road repairs have convinced many board supervisors to support the fee. The fact that added road expenditures made possible by the fee would grow state aid for further maintenance is one more reason to back adopting the fee, supervisor Steve Chilson said. 

 “All the stars are aligning with this,” Chilson said of the vehicle registration fee. “We’ve had this (roads funding) problem with no resolution since I’ve been on the board for the past eight years ... My goal is to get the roads fixed.”

Supervisor Stella Pagonis, who supports the fee, agrees. Because there is no more local tax levy spending space in the budget, the county is increasingly paying for road repairs by borrowing, which incurs interest costs.

“It isn’t feasible for us to keep borrowing for these costs,” she said.

While the fee may have the backing of a majority of the County Board’s 29 supervisors, some oppose it. They are concerned about its impact on poor people and question the fairness of exempting heavy trucks from paying the fee, given those vehicles cause significant damage to roads. Those trucks already pay higher registration fees, supporters of the measure said.  

“A lot of people are really upset at the idea of having to pay this,” Supervisor Gary Gibson said. 

If approved, the $30 fee in Eau Claire County would tie Milwaukee County and the city of Milton in southern Wisconsin as the highest charged in the state. Currently 27 local government units statewide, including eight counties, charge a vehicle registration fee.  

Among counties in this part of Wisconsin, Chippewa and St. Croix have adopted a $10 fee. 

Subpar roads have been a long-standing issue in Eau Claire County. Road conditions have improved significantly in recent years with increased spending, but work remains, Johnson said.

Contact: 715-830-5911, 

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