Referendum, wheel tax among options on table

When the County Highway Committee of the Lincoln County Board meets Thursday morning at the Tomahawk City Hall, it will face a couple of decisions in determining how the Highway Department closes a budget shortfall that it has faced for the last three or four years.

In addition to going into closed session to finalize workforce reduction strategies that will include how the early retirement of some of the department employees will be handled, the five supervisors on the committee will also try to come to a consensus on what funding option they will recommend to the full County Board later in the month. They are seeking ways to generate an additional $750,000 to properly maintain the county roads beyond the stopgap measures the department is currently using.

The three options the board will consider include asking voters for a 31 cent mill rate increase in a referendum, instituting a registration fee or “wheel tax,” and asking the supervisors to increase the department’s budget through existing funding sources.

Highway Commissioner Randy Scholz realizes that the first may not sit well with voters and the second option will also hit taxpayers in the wallet at a time when many county residents are having a hard time making ends meet.

“And the last option isn’t really possible in that all the other departments are being asked to make cuts to their budgets,” he said.

Scholz has been telling supervisors for the last four years that the department’s funding – a complicated mix of county taxes, as well as state and federal subsidies and billed work to the townships – hasn’t kept pace with its expenses. The sharp increase in oil prices a few years ago made the problem even worse, as have the bad winters the last two years which have resulted in more plowing that needed to be done, which has resulted in more budget over runs.

“People ask me what kind of winter I’d like to see,” Scholz said. “I tell them I’d like to see a winter that I have budgeted for.”

The department has sought to cut costs by reducing staff and equipment. The early retirement offer to employees, in which Scholz said some workers have expressed an interest, is one way he and the committee hope to make the cuts bearable. Attempts to cut back in services have met with resistance from the County Board. Last fall an attempt to change the criteria and frequency of plowing county roads was shot down by the board. An attempt to lay off one worker was also nixed by the supervisors. Several supervisors have asked if there is a danger of cutting too many staff positions or equipment so that the department can no longer perform its job, but Scholz has repeatedly denied this and did so again Monday in an interview.

“We would never reduce our staff or equipment to the point where we could not perform our mission, which is to maintain the county roads,” Scholz said. “That would not be in anyone’s best interests.”

Scholz has repeatedly told the County Board that ideally all county roads would be replaced on a 20-25 year cycle, with 12 miles of road being replaced each year. Because of the budget shortfall, which was in the neighborhood of $500,000 in 2009, only three or four miles are being rebuilt each year. The only exceptions are projects that are funded by federal aid, which funds 80 percent of the total cost with the county having to contribute the other 20 percent.

Scholz has been warning that the crunch was coming for several years, but even he was surprised at how soon it arrived.

“I never would have expected it to come so soon,” he said. “Because Lincoln County has been so frugal in the past, we’re actually ahead of where neighboring counties are in reacting.”

He pointed out that neighboring counties are just now looking at ways to stretch their highway dollars in ways that Lincoln County has already implemented.

“Instead of rebuilding roads we have instead opted to chip seal more often than what is recommended,” Scholz said. “The trouble with that is chip sealing is not popular because it causes problems with cars like chipped windshields and such. Also, it isn’t known how long you can keep chip sealing a road instead of doing more substantial repairs. At some point, the road will start to break down.”

Some county roads have already had their weight limits lowered to try to prevent more serious damage, but Scholz said that is hard to do in a rural county such as Lincoln where farm machinery as well as logging trucks and other heavy vehicles need to use the roads.

He said that without increased funding to get the maintenance schedule back to something close to what it should be, there may come a point where all the roads are so bad that some may have to be returned to gravel.

“At some point the roads will become so bad that so many of them will need major work at the same time that nobody could afford to repair them all,” Scholz said. “At that point we as a county will really have to make some hard decisions.”

Of the three funding options the committee will discuss Thursday, the referendum and wheel tax are the two that will most likely be presented to the full board for consideration.

To raise the $750,000 needed to maintain the roads, a referendum to exceed the revenue cap by 31 cents is needed. This would raise the taxes on a $100,000 home by $31 a year. The median value of a home in Lincoln County is estimated at $139,000, which would see a $43.09 increase in its taxes.

A wheel tax, which is one of the more common ways counties and municipalities in Wisconsin raise funds for highway work, would apply to 26,907 vehicles in Lincoln County. Vehicles such as buses, motorcycles, mopeds, electric vehicles, trucks weighing more than 8,000 pounds as well as those registered for farm use, antique vehicles, and several other types are exempt under state statute. If a wheel tax is implemented, it would have to add $27.87 to the cost of registration to raise the needed $750,000.

While a wheel tax would be the easier of the two solutions to implement, requiring the passing of an ordinance by the full County Board, it isn’t without political pitfalls of its own. While some area governments have implemented such taxes, many have since rescinded them. Marathon County had one from Feb. 1987 until Jan. 1988. In addition, the projected $27.87 fee increase would be the highest in the state, even the City of Milwaukee only charges $20. Asking already heavily burdened county residents to foot such a steep increase had some supervisors uneasy at the last two County Board meetings.

The Highway Committee meets at 7:30 a.m. at the Tomahawk City Hall.

Next week: A detailed look at the complicated funding structure of the Highway Department.

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