Baraboo ‘wheel tax’ rolls forward

December 20, 2016

A proposal to increase vehicle registration fees to pay for local road work is gaining traction in Baraboo.

A “wheel tax” met with gridlock during two previous discussions, but the City Council’s public safety committee said Monday something must be done to fund needed street repairs. Several Wisconsin municipalities enforce a fee on top of the standard state vehicle registration fee – typically $10 to $20 per vehicle – to pay for transportation infrastructure.

“We need to take a hard look at that,” said Alderman Phil Wedekind. “We’ve got to put more money into those roads if we’re going to keep up.”

Aldermen who previously expressed skepticism about a wheel tax took a U-turn Monday. They’ll ask the entire council to discuss the idea next month and map out the next steps. These could include conducting a community poll, holding a public hearing or creating an ad hoc committee featuring citizens.

“We need to do something,” said Mayor Mike Palm. “The question is, what do we do?”

In recent years, the city has borrowed $150,000 per year for street work. But it now faces Lake Street repairs that could cost more than $700,000 – along with other projects.

“How are you going to do that without having to bond at a much higher level?” Palm said. “We can’t keep doing that.”

Twelve cities and four counties enforce a wheel tax, with a handful – including nearby Portage – enacting them within the past year. “It’s increasing in popularity,” said City Engineer Tom Pinion.

If the city were to enact a $10 annual vehicle registration fee, it would generate $150,000 per year for road work. A $20 fee would generate $300,000.

The detriment is adding to drivers’ financial burden. “It certainly affects the citizens of the city of Baraboo,” Pinion said. “Putting fees onto people isn’t something to be taken lightly.”

Alderman Tom Kolb said not all citizens can afford fee increases. “We’re pricing people right out of their homes,” he said.

Committee members expressed frustration that the Legislature hasn’t budgeted adequate money for road repairs, forcing local communities to explore alternative funding options like the wheel tax.

“It’s a very difficult situation for all of us,” said Palm, who testified at a recent legislative hearing in Madison on transportation needs.

“The state has created this problem, and we’re supposed to do cartwheels to do what they should be doing,” Kolb said. “That makes me angry.”

Kolb didn’t object to forwarding the matter to the full council. He said the public needs to understand the jam the city’s in, as it balances taxpayers’ financial concerns with the community’s need for navigable streets, as well as the state’s lack of investment. “I think people need to hear that,” he said.

The full council will discuss the matter during one of its two January meetings.