To repair Eau Claire County’s roads, a $30-per-vehicle registration fee will need to be in place for at least a decade, according to the County Board Highway Committee’s vice chairman.
“Our projection to get the highway situation corrected is at least 10 years,” said Supervisor Steve Chilson, one of 20 supervisors Tuesday voting to enact the fee.
Two supervisors, Mark Beckfield and Kevin Stelljes, proposed an amendment calling for the vehicle registration fee, commonly referred to as a wheel tax, to sunset on March 1, 2021, Eau Claire County Clerk Janet Loomis said.
But, that wasn’t voted on. Instead, supervisors approved an amendment to the amendment calling for the fee to be reviewed each year, she said.
In Chilson’s opinion, ending the $30-per-vehicle fee “prior to (10 years) is premature unless the funding sources change,” he said.
The $30 fee, expected to generate about $2.39 million for county roadwork annually, will take effect Jan. 1. It will be in addition to the $75-per-vehicle registration fee the state charges annually to own a vehicle in Wisconsin.
Until the most recent proposal, Chilson, a member of the County Board’s Finance and Budget Committee, had never been in favor of enacting such a fee when it has been offered in the past.
“I have been looking for a long-term solution to fixing our roads,” he said Wednesday. “In my eight years on the board, we haven’t found it. (The reality is), there is a need, but there are no other options.”
Eau Claire County has borrowed increasing amounts of money in recent years to repair and maintain its roads. Such borrowing is necessitated by state-imposed revenue limits that mean the county can’t increase its local tax collections at a high enough level to pay for its current services and road repairs.
Borrowing is exempt from revenue limits, but continued borrowing at current levels isn’t feasible into the future, county officials have said, because the interest on that borrowing becomes too costly.
But, Eau Claire County isn’t the only unit of government borrowing to fund roadwork.
The city of Eau Claire, on average over the past 10 years, has spent about $5.8 million per year for roadwork, said Jay Winzenz, city finance director. That figure doesn’t include expenditures on bridges.
The city of Altoona has borrowed about $1.5 million per year, city Administrator Mike Golat said.
“All municipalities struggle to maintain our transportation infrastructure,” Eau Claire city Manager Dale Peters said. “We have very few tools to address (that), especially with levy limits and state funding not meeting those needs.”
Both Golat and Andrew Werthmann, the Eau Claire City Council’s acting president, said they understood why the county pursued a vehicle registration fee as a funding option for roadwork.
However, they also said they wished county officials would have been willing to work with leaders in communities countywide to address an issue they all face, especially when about three of every four vehicles in the county are owned by Eau Claire and Altoona residents.
“Eau Claire County and the municipalities in Eau Claire County have a long history of working together to solve issues affecting us all,” Golat said.
He and Werthmann said they don’t expect councils in either city will consider enacting their own per-vehicle fees.
“I don’t want to speak for the council, but I think that option is no longer on the table,” Werthmann said.
Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf and Eau Claire County Highway Administrator Jon Johnson couldn’t be reached for comment.
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