Concerned about paying for road repairs, some Eau Claire County supervisors oppose a plan by Eau Claire City Council members to possibly share in a proposed $30-per-vehicle registration fee, saying doing so would imperil upgrades for county highways in need of fixes.
Other supervisors, however, said the county should consider delaying a vote on the matter to allow for more discussion of the city’s proposal. Still others said they oppose the measure because it would be unfair to the county’s poor residents.
The County Board is scheduled to discuss the issue at its Tuesday meeting.
To come up with more money to improve county highway conditions, county officials last month proposed the fee, commonly called a wheel tax, projected to raise $2.39 million annually to be used for road repairs and rebuilds.
Because of rising costs for other portions of county services, county highway repair expenditures were reduced $1.8 million this year from 2017. Anything less than the $30 fee would delay ongoing efforts to improve the 421-mile county highway network that a few years ago ranked among the worst in Wisconsin, fee backers said.
“We didn’t just arbitrarily come up with that number,” Supervisor Gerald Wilkie said. “We did it so we could eventually get to the point where we have roads that are in satisfactory condition.”
The county has borrowed more money in recent years for highway repairs, and continuing to do so in the future “isn’t sustainable,” county Administrator Kathryn Schauf said. If adopted, the fee would come on top of the $75-per-vehicle annual charge by the state Department of Transportation to own a vehicle in Wisconsin.
On Tuesday the City Council approved a request to meet with county officials about the fee. Council members have discussed seeking as much as 70 percent of fee money for city street maintenance, given that about 70 percent of vehicles registered in the county are in the city.
Either of those actions would leave the county without adequate roads funding for the future, several county supervisors said. Supervisor Carl Anton said investments in upcoming years would go a long way toward reducing roads-related spending in the future.
“You either pay for roads now or you pay a lot more for them later,” he said.
Other supervisors acknowledge difficulties coming up with funding to pay for roads but said the fee isn’t the best way to do so. They said the County Board should delay its vote on the matter given City Council interest in the issue.
Supervisor Brandon Buchanan questioned why the fee proposal wasn’t discussed by the Joint Commission on Shared Services, a commission comprising members of the County Board, City Council and Eau Claire school district. Before a County Board vote on the matter, the commission should discuss it to “address the very real concerns the city has,” Buchanan said.
Supervisor Pat LaVelle said those living in the city shouldn’t be expected to subsidize more county road repairs than they already pay for. He questioned the timing of the fee given that the county budget won’t be adopted until November and said the County Board should delay voting on it.
“I think we should put the brakes on this and think things through,” he said.
Buchanan and others are critical of the lack of state funding for roads, saying Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has made other projects, especially the controversial Foxconn electronics plant near Racine, spending priorities.
Wilkie said he also wishes the state would address its road-funding shortage but said the county can’t wait for that to happen. He doesn’t buy the argument that city residents like him don’t benefit from quality county roads.
“The city is still part of the county,” Wilkie said. “The city relies on those roads to bring products in and out. ... We all benefit from good roads.”