Board plans education on wheelage or sales tax before decisionPublished 10:59am Wednesday, July 17, 2013
With an aging road system across the county and a shortage of funds for improvements, the county board faces a looming problem with county highways and bridges.
Highway engineer Rick West led a discussion with the commissioners over a possible wheelage and sales tax for the improvement of county roads Tuesday morning. While commissioners made no immediate decisions, the board was visibly concerned about the need to educate county residents on the situation at hand.
The discussion also seemed to indicate that a solution, most likely a wheelage or sales tax, to fix the issue is likely in the future, but the board will wait until they have all the information needed to make a decision.
“It’s my view that if we explain what condition our roads are in and what it’s going to take to maintain those roads at the quality levels we have them today, the citizens board will be more than in favor of a $10 wheelage tax,” said commissioner Wayne Johnson. “And probably also in favor of looking at a sales tax at some point as well.”
Projections show the wheelage tax, which could add up to $10 when vehicle owners buy registration tabs, would raise over $500,000 annually to go to county roads. Based on items taxable under the state tax, a sales tax would generate about $4.2 million annually in Otter Tail County.
The deadline set by legislation for implicating a wheelage tax in 2014 is August 1, and West and the board made it clear they will take their time with the decision. That means the earliest the county would see a wheelage tax is by 2015.
The extra tax is a concern for the board, as they know it could be met with some resentment. The commissioners voiced their confidence in its acceptance, however, if the county’s needs and solutions were clearly stated to the public.
“If we do an education piece after we cast our dye, our education piece is going to look like a defensive piece instead a proactive approach to where we want to go,” said commissioner Lee Rogness.
A system preservation study for the county should be finalized in late August. West said he believes he will present the study to the board at length sometime in September. After that, the process of informing the public will begin.
“The system preservation study will demonstrate that there is a need for additional funding,” West said. “To demonstrate the need will not be an issue.”
The commissioners agreed that the funding problem needs to be fixed in order to maintain drivable roadways. While funding has remained the same in recent years, costs for asphalt and other materials used to maintain roads and bridges have more than doubled.
The faster the problem is fixed, the easier projects become. When roads receive maintenance before they are run down, less money is spent as well.
“As soon as our public knows where we’re at and where we’re going, they’re smart enough to figure it out,” Johnson said. “These are their dollars. Most people will say, ‘You’re right, we don’t want to go back to gravel roads.’ Because, at the end of the day, this is what a lot of this means.”