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Wheel tax: Vehicle registration fee funding six projects

Work has begun on six construction sites in Eau Claire County as a result of funding from a $30 vehicle registration fee implemented at the beginning of the year.

The fee, commonly referred to as a wheel tax, was approved by the Eau Claire County Board last July to limit borrowing for road construction funding and improve county roads. It results in Eau Claire County residents paying an additional $30 for annual vehicle registrations on top of the $75 charged by the state every year.

According to Eau Claire County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson, the county has received about $1.4 million from the wheel tax so far this year, meaning it is on pace to raise its projected annual tax of $2.39 million. The money raised by the fee will total around one-third of the overall highway construction budget.

A map listing all of the road projects funded by the wheel tax was released on the Eau Claire County website last week. It shows six active projects and seven in design phases that are scheduled to be completed in the next year or two.

Johnson and Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf appreciated the opportunity to show tangible results illustrating how the county is using the fee money.

Two of the active projects entail work to improve bridges. Johnson prioritized improving bridges this year because a closed bridge causes more issues than a rough road.

“Once we allocate all the funds to the bridge needs, whatever is left goes to the highway projects based off the largest fiscal impact projects,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the bridges likely would have been worked on this year by borrowing municipal bonds, but he said most of the road mileage projects would not have received construction this year without the vehicle registration fee. The seven projects in the design phase would have been delayed indefinitely as well.

Schauf said the fee provided a much better option than borrowing municipal bonds, although it is not a perfect situation.

“The ideal number would actually take and eliminate all our debt,” Schauf said.

Johnson and Schauf have received three main types of feedback: people who support the measure; residentts unhappy with the tax who understand the reasoning after receiving more information about what it will be spent toward; and those who wholeheartedly disapprove of the fee.

Eau Claire County Board member Carl Anton is in the first category, calling it a necessary aspect that should result in lower long-term road construction spending.

Anton was one of 20 members who supported the wheel tax last year. He said it involved a choice between working on roads now or delaying construction, which is more costly in the long run.

“It is cheaper to maintain the roads than it is to rebuild them later,” Anton said.

Eau Claire County Board member Pat LaVelle is part of the third camp, calling it an extremely unfair tax. He was one of nine who voted against the vehicle registration fee proposal last July.

LaVelle did not agree with taxing vehicles weighing less than 8,000 pounds when larger trucks cause the most road damage.

In LaVelle’s view, the county is not working on more projects because of wheel tax funding but rather is paying in a different manner for construction that would have occurred in the near future regardless.

“They would’ve done the [projects] anyway, more than likely,” LaVelle said. “If not this year, they would’ve done them in two years.”

LaVelle added his displeasure that most of the fees are paid for by Eau Claire residents, but none of the city roads are being fixed by the wheel tax, which only applies to county roadways.

The wheel tax is on track to raise the estimated amount of $2.39 million, but uncertainty still exists for Johnson, who has factored in a 10% margin of error on that total when deciding how much to spend on construction this year.

So far, the fee seems to have resulted in more construction in 2019. In a normal year, Johnson said the county’s goal is to work on at least 18 miles of road, a target it met in two of the previous three years. Eau Claire County appears on pace to meet that number this year after already working on 16.45 miles in the first seven months of 2019. Johnson expects the total number to be around 23 miles at the end of this year.

The overall road rating in the county stands at 5.4 on the PASER scale, a number Johnson hopes will improve to 6 within the next eight years. PASER has a system that rates pavement from 1 through 10, with roads between 5 and 6 being in fair condition.

“At 6, you haven’t crossed the point of no return,” Johnson said. “You can salvage that roadway, but once you get to a 5, now you’re starting to look at, ‘OK, we let it go a little too long.’”

Schauf called that a key number for local and regional drivers passing through the area because the roads connect many parts of the state and to the Twin Cities area.

“There’s a huge element of how the county’s system helps connect other overlying taxing jurisdictions,” Schauf said.

The county bridges are rated on a scale of 0 to 100 on a different system. Johnson said the current conditions are around 78 and he hopes to see it increase to 80 within the next six years.

There is no sunset date for the wheel tax, although Johnson hopes it can potentially end once the bridges improve to a rating of 80 and roads bump up to a rating of 6.

Schauf isn’t sure how long it will last, but she does not foresee changes to the fee anytime soon.

“The idea is, ‘Let’s put something in place that will at least begin to mitigate this ongoing borrowing that we have in order to maintain our roadways,’” Schauf said. “I don’t anticipate that we would see significant changes year over year into the future.”

Online student, television star visits UW-EC

Reality-television royalty visited the Chippewa Valley last week as Cassie Randolph continues her pursuit of a master’s degree from UW-Eau Claire.

The Californian earned fame by winning the 23rd season of “The Bachelor” and is currently enrolled in UW-Eau Claire’s online communication sciences and disorders program. She is on track to earn her master’s degree in speech pathology in 2021.

“This was the required second-year residency period for Cassie,” said Abby Hemmerich, an associate professor and online graduate program coordinator for communication sciences and disorders at UW-Eau Claire. “Our students are required to come to campus three times during their graduate program, one week each summer.

“This week was a wrap-up of summer courses and a chance to do extensive hands-on practice with various materials we have here in the department.”

Some specific examples, Hemmerich said, include: learning how to do swallowing evaluations and therapy, practicing how a speech language pathologist would test a child for language problems, and discussing how the students’ first clinical experiences went.

Randolph is one of about 70 students in the three-year online program. Another 36 students in the on-campus program also interacted with the group last week.

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Former NFL player Colton Underwood was the focus of the television show on which he and Randolph proved to be a match. Randolph’s visit drew a post on UW-Eau Claire’s Facebook page that read, “She may have gotten Colton Underwood’s final (insert rose emoji here), but we’re giving Cassie Randolph a quality education.” And Underwood’s playing a role in that as well.

“Uhh, yeah, Colton really is very sweet and tries to help me study,” Randolph told Sam Thompson, social media lead for UW-Eau Claire, and student Demi Cimiaskaite, who conducted an interview for the university. “He actually does a lot. I will give it to him. He is like my little prop whenever I have to do fake assessments or exams. He’s a good sport about it.”

As far as choosing UW-Eau Claire as opposed to other online options, Randolph said a friend’s experience drew her to the school.

“... One of my best friends, Katie, from Biola (University in Southern California), is actually in their online speech program and told me it was great and loved the professors and her cohort,” Randolph told Thompson and Cimiaskaite. “Once I looked into it myself, I thought doing an online program would probably be best for me and my lifestyle and what’s going on with everything.

“And then, also, this program is so good and very interactive and rigorous and hard, but also you learn so much from it and the professors and the students in my cohort are so kind and fun. It’s just a great program overall.”

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The demands of “The Bachelor” made online coursework particularly important.

“When filming started, I actually told my professors about it and they were so accommodating,” Randolph told Thompson and Cimiaskaite. “They allowed me to stop classes and put it on pause and then rejoin later on.

“One of the main things I love about this university is the professors care about you so much, especially in my department. They genuinely want you to succeed and they set everything up for you to succeed, so if something is really hard for you in the moment, they’re going to work with you as much as they can to let you keep going through school at your own pace.”

Randolph said she got into the field in part because it offers a variety of options. “You can work with stroke patients or in a hospital with traumatic brain injuries,” she said. “Or you can work with businesses or in the entertainment industry with vocal coaching. It’s such a fun, wide-set major.”

And the educational aspect of the field has now become a family affair.

“My mom and my aunt are actually in the post-baccalaureate program here at UW-Eau Claire, so we’re all three hopefully one day going to do something together in speech,” Randolph said. “Ultimately, I think our dream would be to open clinics or our own private practice and work together somehow.

“I don’t exactly know what specific field of speech I want to go into yet, which is what I’m exploring with grad school.”

Hemmerich said most students start out in clinical settings such as hospitals, skilled nursing facilities or schools.

“Setting up a private practice requires a lot of experience with both the clinical side of things and the business side of things,” she said. “It would be great if she would open a private practice someday, but we’d like to see her get plenty of clinical experience to prepare her for that.”

She aced at least one tough question during her Eau Claire visit when Thompson and Cimiaskaite asked, “What is a Blugold?”

“I think it’s a bird,” Randolph said. “Honestly, I didn’t know for a little while what it was, but I knew that it’s what I was, so I thought it was important to find out.”