Editorial: County rushed into wheelage taxPublished 7:45am Friday, June 28, 2013
When Mower County commissioners and a long list of others opened an e-mail last Friday with the June 25 board agenda, they saw a host of minutiae. From solid waste permits to various agreements with other agencies, the agenda covered dozens of topics. What it didn’t mention was the possibility of a tax increase. That, however, proved no impediment to four commissioners who voted to extract an extra $357,000 per year from county residents starting in 2014. To approve a new tax so hastily was irresponsible government. The board ought to reverse this decision at its next meeting, then bring the matter up for consideration again after adequate time for residents to weigh in.
A new state law gives counties the option to enact what is known as wheelage, a $10 tax drivers pay when they renew licenses. The money is supposed to be earmarked for road and bridge work. While no one can doubt that maintaining roads and bridges is important, it is less obvious that Mower County in particular needs to enact a new tax or that it needed to do so at this time.
If the public had sufficient notice that their elected representatives were getting ready to pile on a new tax, they might have asked any number of questions, including:
• How many millions of dollars does Mower County have in reserve funds? If it has reserves, could those tax-based funds be used for roads instead of adding a new tax? And if reserves can’t be used, then why does the county have reserves?
• Wheelage tax must be paid regardless of one’s income, regardless of how much one drives. Does Mower County really need to add such a regressive tax, one whose impact is greater for the poor than for the wealthy?
• Is Mower County doing this because it’s actually necessary, or just because the Legislature gave the OK for counties to tap a new source of revenue?
• What’s the hurry? The Legislature approved this concept just a few weeks ago. It isn’t going to take effect until January. Perhaps it would be good public policy to air the issue one week and then vote on it in a month or two.
The last question is particularly relevant. While everyone likes good roads, no one likes taxes. And if this idea had been made widely known before a vote was held, commissioners would no doubt have heard from people who think it is a bad idea. By voting quickly, by not even putting the item on the agenda, commissioners spared themselves having to answer questions like those above. Certainly the county board has taken its time on many other issues, including several that were on Tuesday’s agenda. So the quick vote on this tax increase is particularly puzzling.
Is wheelage tax needed? Maybe so. Is open government needed? Without a doubt. There is seldom any reason, save a true emergency, for major public issues to not receive a thorough public airing. Mower County needs to do better, starting with the issue of wheelage tax.