Council puts brakes on mayor’s wheel tax proposal

Port aldermen vote 6-1 against plan to impose $20-per-vehicle levy
Ozaukee Press staff

A proposed $20 annual wheel tax was emphatically voted down by the Port Washington Common Council last week.

Aldermen voted 6-1 against the tax, with only Ald. Mike Ehrlich voting in favor of the fee.

Just minutes before the vote was taken, Ehrlich said he was still struggling with the issue.

“I’m not sure if I support it or not. Nobody really wants an added fee,” he said, adding, “It’s $20 bucks. It’s not a lot.”

Like the majority of aldermen, Ehrlich said he favored the idea of a referendum to try and increase the tax levy to provide additional funds to fix the city’s streets.

The wheel tax was proposed by Mayor Tom Mlada as a way to provide an estimated $200,000 annually to supplement the city’s road repair funds.

The city is falling behind in its quest to repair its roads, Mlada said, noting much of the funding in recent years has come from borrowing.

“It’s indisputable we have to find addition revenue to truly maintain our roadways,” he said. “The bottom line is as we look forward over the next 10 years, potentially $10 million is needed for our most urgent repairs.”

The wheel tax, he said, amounted to five cents a day.

“I think a nickel a day is one heck of a bargain,” Mlada said.

But aldermen disagreed.

“I agree with you on the need for this,” Ald. Paul Neumyer said, but the majority of those who spoke to him about the issue preferred a referendum and increased tax levy.

“I agree, we can’t keep borrowing for this,” Neumyer said. “I think this (a referendum) would pass because people understand the need to maintain our infrastructure.”

Ald. Dan Benning agreed, saying “We really need a plan for a more robust solution.”

Ald. Mike Gasper said the city needs to eliminate borrowing for everyday needs, such as roads, reserving that option for extraordinary needs such as a second firehouse.

“Roadways are an annual obligation. We shouldn’t have to borrow for them,” he said.

To come up with a referendum, he said, the city should create a long-term capital plan for all its departments and then determine the levy increase needed to handle those needs.

“We need to be looking out 20 years for big items,” Gasper added. “Five years isn’t enough.”

Ald. Dave Larson, chairman of the Finance and License Committee, said extra fees for operational items shouldn’t be imposed.

“What’s next? Am I going to get a street light tax or a snowplow fee?” he asked. “I don’t like added taxes and fees. I want it to be straight up.

“I’ve come to the conclusion we really should come up with a way to do this through our normal budget process.”

Ald. John Sigwart said a wheel tax should be considered if a referendum fails.

“It’s not that this is a good idea or a bad idea,” he said. “This is a good fallback item.

“I just think it would dampen our spirits to fight the uphill battle (of passing a referendum).”

Ald. Jonathan Pleitner agreed, saying, “If we impose a wheel fee now, the chances of passing a referendum in two or three years is significantly less.”

He said he would rather the city spend its resources educating people on the need for a levy increase to pay for street maintenance.

But, he added, the city needs to establish a group to “shepherd a referendum.”

Sigwart proposed having the city’s Public Works Board and city officials do the preliminary work for a referendum and bring it to the Common Council.


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