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Mayor proposes $20 wheel tax for Port PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 08 November 2017 20:29

Mlada says levy would net $200,000 annually for road work, but aldermen concerned about impact on residents

    Port Washington Mayor Tom Mlada on Tuesday floated the idea of imposing a $20 wheel tax as early as next spring, saying this will provide the city with a way to improve the city’s streets.
    “This is just the opening salvo in this,” Mlada told aldermen. “This is not a perfect solution. I think it can be part of the solution.”
    The wheel registration fee, collected by the State Department of Transportation when drivers renew their license plates annually, would not supplant the funds currently budgeted and borrowed by the city for road projects, Mlada said, but instead supplement them.
    “Right now, we’re essentially borrowing on an annual basis,” he said.
    Everyone acknowledges that street repairs are a priority, Mlada said, but costs continue to increase while the city’s budget is lean, state aids are declining and levy limits mean the city can’t tax more for roadwork.
    The city has about 16 miles of streets that are rated poorly, between one and four on a 10-point scale, Mlada noted. It would take $20 million to fix them all, something that would ideally be done in the next 10 years, he said, a $2 million annual investment.
    The city borrows about $800,000 annually for road work, Mlada said, while the wheel fee is expected to bring in about $200,000 a year.
    That $1 million is what the city has said it needs to keep up with its roadwork, he said, noting it would pay for resurfacing two-thirds of a mile of street, resurfacing and replacing the curb along one-third mile or completely reconstructing almost two city blocks.
    “We could make a difference,” Mlada said. “This is not chump change.”
    Dedicating the funds for road resurfacing would allow the city to extend the life of some streets, he said, while borrowed funds could be used for reconstruction projects.
    By doing that, he said, the city could tackle the roads around the Thomas Drive water tower, as well as those in the Spinnaker West and Bley Park Estates subdivisions during the next five years — something that won’t happen without the wheel tax.
    Mlada suggested that the wheel tax proposal be considered by the Board of Public Works next week, with possible approval as part of the city’s budget action at the Nov. 21 meeting. If the council approved an ordinance enacting a wheel fee in December, he said, it could be collected beginning April 1.   
    But other officials were not as enthusiastic about the concept of a wheel tax and urged a slower approach.
    “I am really torn on this,” Ald. Dave Larson said. “I do not like taxes and fees.”
    City Administrator Mark Grams urged the Common Council not to rush the wheel tax through the system but instead to take time and solicit input from residents, even if that means delaying the implementation of the tax.
    “I think you need more time to hear from the public first,” he said. “How we do that, whether we have a big public hearing, I don’t know.”
    A referendum on the issue is another possibility, he said.
    “To me, it’s a tax outside the property tax and maybe that would be a way to get input from residents,” Grams said.
    Ald. Mike Ehrlich agreed, saying, “I think we really need to feel out our constituents on this.”
    The city should hold a public information meeting to educate residents about transportation and street issues, from the pavement rating system to the funding issues, Ald. John Sigwart suggested.
    Sigwart said he isn’t necessarily in favor of a wheel tax but he is in favor of spending more on roads, even if that means borrowing more funds, noting that when he ran for office last spring most people said it’s the primary issue facing the city.  
    Money is cheap right now, with interest rates about 2%, he noted.
    “I’m not for or against a wheel tax,” Sigwart said. “I think we have to be more aggressive with our street program.
    “This (wheel tax) could be part of the solution. What we have to look for is the rest of the solution.”
    Ald. Mike Gasper said the city should look at other ways to finance street work, such as holding a referendum to increase the levy limit so the city can directly tax residents more for road work, especially since road costs are increasing faster than inflation.
    That, he said, would save the borrowing costs and interest fees the city is charged.
    “I’m not sure there is a right answer one way or another,” he said of the wheel tax and referendum. “If we’re going to do a referendum anyway, why not have a referendum on increasing the levy limit?”
    Wheel taxes have been a contentious issue around the state since they were first allowed in 1967. Both municipalities and counties may charge a wheel fee, with proceeds dedicated to transportation needs.
    According to the Department of Transportation, 19 communities and six counties in the state charge a wheel fee. They range from small communities such as Gillett and Lodi to large cities like Sheboygan, Beloit and Milwaukee.
    Communities determine how much the wheel fee is — it ranges from $10 in Tigerton, Iron Ridge and Kaukauna to $30 in Milton and Milwaukee County.
    The money is collected by the DOT when drivers renew their vehicle licenses, although some plates are exempt from the tax, such as antique and collector plates, farm trucks and motor homes.
    Some communities set a sunset date for the wheel fee, and Mlada said this is something the city can consider when writing the ordinance.
    It can also consider setting the fee for a specific length of time,
    But, he said, the city shouldn’t hold off on the wheel fee indefinitely.
    “I don’t want to see us wait on this for six months,” he said, adding that he’d like to see a public information meeting on the issue held in early December.
    “At the end of the day, we’re probably just going to have to make the hard decision,” Mlada said. “In my estimation, this is something the city not only needs, it’s right.”
    The wheel tax issue is expected to be discussed further by the Board of Public Works, but a meeting date has not been set, officials said.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 November 2017 20:30
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