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Wheel tax in New Richmond?

The idea of a wheel tax to help cover road work expenses in the years to come was raised by Alderman Jim Zajkowski at a council work session last week. (Raymond T. Rivard photo)

Aldermen debate the pros and cons ...

City of New Richmond Alderman Jim Zajkowski, at the city council’s most recent work session on Sept. 28, raised a few eyebrows and even some voices by proposing the council consider the establishment of a wheel tax that he said could raise as much as $1.5 million over five years to help pay for upcoming road, sidewalk and trail projects.

“Four to five months ago in the League of Municipalities magazine … they talked about the wheel tax and the need to find other means of revenue because of things being cut back,” Zajkowski said in beginning his proposal. “So I wanted to look into it and get some information on that … what we’re looking at right now … with the vehicles we have ... in New Richmond … at $20 per vehicle, which the state collects, we don’t do anything … they collect it … they charge 17 cents for each vehicle … we could collect approximately $300,000 per year.”

Considering that the city in the next two years will be looking at rebuilding some of the local roads, continuing to repair sidewalks and improving trails, Zajkowski said, “With all our street projects … and that’s why I started looking at this … it could be used for streets, sidewalks and pathways … I’m looking over a time period of five years, that’s $1.5 million.”

While continuing his argument for what he believed was another way of looking at a wheel tax, Zajkowski raised the stormwater fee paid by city residents.

“We have a stormwater fee … that’s $30 a year. Here [with the wheel tax] we’re looking at $20 per year and that could bring back approximately $300,000 to the community to use for our streets and sidewalks. That’s why I’m bringing it up now. That’s why I was talking to Mike [Darrow] because we have some shortages here and with all the projects coming up … $20 a year and we don’t have to do anything to collect it.”

But that didn’t sit well with both Scottie Ard and Mike Montello.

“[With] the $10 wheel tax the county currently imposes … I don’t think that’s going to fly very well,” Ard said.

But it was Montello who was most vocally opposed to the idea.

“There are 16 units of government in the state of Wisconsin that currently collect a wheel tax … that’s 16 … that’s a super, super, super small percent,” Montello said. “But let’s be honest, Jim. This $300,000 isn’t free money. It’s not like if we just go out and pick up all the aluminum cans we find and we’ll have $300,000 to work with in revenue … if we are going to be honest to the taxpayers, let’s just say we’re going to increase the levy by $300,000 a year because that’s what we would be doing. That’s what it is.”

Alderman Jim ZajkowskiZajkowski said the council wouldn’t have to increase the levy.

“Jim, you are because you’re making people who have already paid tax bills, whether it’s through rent or whatever. Now it’s an added fee. It’s disingenuous to say to folks, ‘listen, we didn’t increase your levy, but we got this extra revenue that you are paying through another source.’ I personally find that the wheel tax is not equitable, probably in any way, shape or form. We all see the senior citizens in our community … who may own a car and may go to the bank and they go to the grocery store … they are paying the same percentage … as the person who puts 1,000 miles a week on their cars. I think the reality is that if we need the money, we should be honest and say, ‘OK, we’re going to make it part of the city’s levy. [The wheel tax] is a backhanded way to collect more revenue. It doesn’t matter that the state gets it and we don’t. We need to have that flat out on the table. If we need the levy, let’s collect the levy.”

The question of whether the city needs the revenue was also raised.

“We have projects that we need to accomplish and pay for without adding additional taxes,” Ard said. “I can tell you that when that wheel tax was first proposed in St. Croix County, the county board turned.”

Mayor Fred Horne agreed with Ard, saying, “… after that, a lot of county board members weren’t county board members. But this goes back to what Mike [Montello] said … ‘if we need the revenue to spend, we’re going to have to be honest with the public and raise … the levy.’”

Alderman Craig Kittle then took a different approach.

“If you ask anyone if they want their taxes to go up, they are going to say no,” Kittle said. “But if you ask them if they want their roads to be better, they are going to say yes. So you’re going to have to ask whether they want their roads better and whether they are willing to pay $20 a year more in a wheel tax. Then you have a real decision to make.”

Horne added, “the question to the public is do they want to see an increase on spending on roads.”

“We’re going to have spending,” Zajkowski said, “we’re looking at projects where we’re going to be spending another $3 million. Here we have a way over five years to collect $1.5 million to be used toward that.”

After the aldermen finished the meat of the discussion, the option of opening the matter up to community members was agreed upon.

“Let’s do the responsible thing and have a public hearing about the possibility of instituting a wheel tax in order for the public to be heard,” Ard said.

That said, the council agreed to have the item placed on the agenda for the Monday, Oct. 24, work session agenda.