After nearly three hours of discussion Tuesday night, the Eau Claire County Board voted 20-9 to enact a $30-per-vehicle registration fee that is projected to raise $2.39 million annually for county road maintenance.
“It’s a start. It gets us back on track to having roads that are viable,” Supervisor Colleen Bates said in approving the wheel tax.
“We need to move ahead. These roads are not in good shape,” Supervisor Carl Anton said.
Supervisor Gerald Wilkie, who supported the wheel tax, said the county is up against the wall in terms of delaying this action any further.
The wheel tax had to be enacted by mid August for it to get into the 2019 budget cycle, he said.
“Don’t delay this,” he said.
A motion by Supervisor Sue Miller to send the wheel tax motion back to the county’s Highway and Finance and Budget committees for further discussion failed by a vote of 19-10.
Supervisor Ray Henning flat out opposed the wheel tax.
“It’s not fair. It’s the most unfair tax there is,” he said. “In my conscience, I could not support a wheel tax.”
Supervisor Brandon Buchanan opposed the wheel tax, saying 18 percent of Eau Claire County residents live in poverty.
“It’s a very regressive tax,” he said.
County officials have said the fee is necessary for continued improvement of highways that ranked among the state’s worst several years ago.
City councils in Eau Claire and Altoona weighed in last week with concerns about the fee. Both political bodies approved resolutions seeking to discuss means of a more equitable vehicle registration fee with the county.
While they said they understand the road-funding quandary the county faces, they are concerned that they would have no input on the fee given that about three of every four vehicles in the county are owned by Eau Claire and Altoona residents.
The fee will take effect Jan. 1. It would be in addition to the $75-per-vehicle cost the state charges annually to own a vehicle in Wisconsin.
To upgrade road conditions, the county has borrowed increasing amounts of money in recent years. 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 said, because interest payments on loans become too costly.
With a wheel tax, borrowing for road repairs would be reduced, resulting in an estimated savings of $3.8 million in interest payments alone during the next decade, according to county figures.
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