County board passes unpopular but necessary ‘wheel tax’
By Joe Bachman
STEVENS POINT — Portage County residents will now face an unpopular, but necessary tax in form of a vehicle registration fee, or ‘wheel tax’, as it was approved by County Board on Tuesday night.
After years of the state shifting the burden for highway repair and maintenance onto local municipalities, the options were simple: Either borrow even more money to fix Portage County roads, cut programs elsewhere in the county, or do what dozens of other municipalities in the state have done — create an additional annual tax.
“When you look at your toolbox and you’ve got one tool to use, do you pick up the tool and try to use it?” said County Executive Chris Holman, as he addressed many on hand during last night’s meeting. “Even though it’s regressive, unfair, and all the things people have said about it — the entire situation is unfair for everybody in the county.”
In short, the current funding model for the Portage County Highway Department has become unsustainable, and officials are looking for a way to make up the gaps in much needed funding for highways. Instead of borrowing more money, the county will look for taxpayer help in the form of a $25 annual vehicle fee, which would generate around $1.4 Million per year. This makes up some of the $3 million needed for proper maintenance and repair.
“When you have no fat to trim, and have levy caps placed against you — there’s no place to go,” said County Board Chairman Al Haga. “There’s no other means for money aside from dropping and eliminating services.”
According to Portage County Highway Commissioner Nathan Check, 85 percent of the county’s 434 miles of roadway need some sort of maintenance or improvement. In fact, six of the county’s 36 bridges are considered “structurally deficient” with nearly half over 75 years of age.
Multiple county representatives state that they have received calls in opposition of the tax, even if they personally support it. However, it was also pointed out by other officials that those in support of the tax may not go out of their way to voice such support.
District 10 Supervisor Bob Gifford hopes this move becomes a catalyst for counties and municipalities to work together to find a consistent funding solution for Wisconsin’s roads.
“This problem shows a real breakdown between state and local governments,” said Gifford. “I call this a blockhead terminology that has taken over the state legislature – this idea that you can never raise taxes, and that taxes are evil — and the people speaking behind the curtain are the people who have the most money who don’t want to pay money.
This is an issue that should get all the counties fired up to work together to put some real pressure on the state legislature.”
About the ‘Wheel tax’
The ‘wheel tax’ will be temporary for a length of five years, as it will stand as an ordinance with such limitations in writing.
County board officials can eliminate the tax at anytime. This is due to new Governor-Elect Tony Evers, as if state funding were to rise under his administration, the county may no longer need the tax.
-It would only apply to automobiles, vans, SUV’s, motor trucks, and dual-purpose motor homes.
-It would NOT apply to buses, motorcycles, mopeds, motor homes, low-speed vehicles, snowmobiles, trucks registered at more than 8,000 pounds, or vehicles registered as historic or antique/collectors.
These limitations come from state statutes, and is out of the county’s hands. Based on current numbers, approximately 57,000 vehicles would qualify for the tax in Portage County.
County board members voted 19-3 in favor of the tax, with Dale O’Brien, (District 19) and Matthew and Barry Jacowski, (District 22 &23) voting against.