County board votes to extend ‘wheel tax’ through 2022
Supervisors mull public messaging after failure of referendum
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Editor
MERRILL – Lincoln County’s $20 vehicle registration fee, also known as the “wheel tax,” will remain in effect through 2022.
The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors discussed the wheel tax at length during its Tuesday, April 20 meeting at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill.
The original wheel tax resolution introduced at the meeting did not have a sunset, meaning the wheel tax would’ve been in place indefinitely. However, the board approved an amendment to the resolution that added a Dec. 31, 2022 sunset. The board can revisit the wheel tax’s expiration date next spring.
Funds from the wheel tax account for roughly $560,000.00 in the Highway Department’s budget, which can be spent on road maintenance, new construction, snow removal, and other department operations.
Supervisors also mulled Lincoln County’s recently-defeated referendum, which sought to exceed levy limits by $700,000.00 per year for five years to fund Highway Department operations and road maintenance, and talked about how public perception of the relationship between the wheel tax and referendum may have contributed to the referendum’s defeat.
The referendum failed by a roughly 56% to 44% margin on April 6.
Communication with public on wheel tax, referendum
Several supervisors noted that the board’s communication, or lack thereof, with the public regarding the wheel tax and referendum may have been a factor in the referendum’s defeat.
As one Supervisor noted, some voters were not aware of the board’s intention to do away with the wheel tax if the referendum had passed. Board Chair Kevin Koth pointed out that even if the referendum had passed and the current board eliminated the wheel tax, a new board could be elected and reinstate a wheel tax while the levy increase would still be in effect.
District 21 Supervisor Gene Simon said a number of residents in his district were under the impression that, if the referendum had passed, the levy increase and the wheel tax would’ve been in effect simultaneously.
District 3 Supervisor Elizabeth McCrank echoed Simon’s statement, saying she had seen perception among the public that the referendum would “open the door to double taxation,” and people believed they would have had to pay the wheel tax while the levy increased.
“Because we were not allowed to tie the wheel tax to the levy, we could not explicitly talk about it that way, that perception was fairly common,” McCrank stated. “I think it was a reasonable interpretation people had.”
District 9 Supervisor Don Friske spoke from the public’s perspective.
“You’re asking me to vote. Well, I want to know what I’m buying,” he stated. “I know it’s $20. I have three cars, so it’s $60 for me. Tell me what I get for my $60. What roads are you fixing? What bridges are you fixing? What shoulders are you doing? What brushing are you doing? What specific need do we have for $560,000.00? The public is certainly willing to support the cost of services, provided they know what their hard-earned dollar is purchasing.”
Koth noted that the board held a public hearing on the referendum on March 4 and “one person showed up online.”
Wheel tax, sunset, referendum discussion
Supervisors participated in a lengthy discussion prior to the vote on the wheel tax.
Friske spoke out in favor of adding the sunset to the wheel tax ordinance, but did not support the original sunset-free ordinance.
“Optically, a 56% loss is a landslide,” he said. “That referendum tanked. … 20 days ago, the public said ‘no.’ … I don’t think it’s that reasonable for the county board to ask the public for its opinion, then 20 days later stick it to them by saying, ‘We’re going to eliminate the sunset and we’re going to tax you $560,000.00 a year anyway.’”
McCrank said she did not agree with the notion that the rejection of the referendum was also a rejection of the wheel tax.
“We didn’t get the levy, so therefore, sadly, I’m afraid we do still need the wheel tax,” she stated, adding that she would vote for the sunset because “we do need to revisit it on a regular basis so that we don’t get comfortable just assuming we’re always going to have (wheel tax funds).”
District 20 Supervisor Dora Gorski said she believed the board should vote increase the wheel tax “because we said we needed $700,000.00 and here we’re saying, ‘We can get away with only $500,000.00.’”
“It points to the fact that we really do need the money, and we’re serious about it, and we need not only the money we had before, but an increase,” she stated, adding that an increase would lead to media attention and “therefore more opportunity to advertise our need and explain our issues.”
No action was taken on increasing the wheel tax.
Board Vice Chair Bob Weaver stated his belief that implementing temporary sources of funding for ongoing services leads to future budget issues.
“The mantra coming out of (Finance Director Dan Leydet)’s office is ‘You never use one-time revenues for continuing programs,’” Weaver said.
Prior to the vote, District 1 Supervisor Bill Bialecki suggested attempting another levy increase referendum next April, and Friske floated the idea of adding a wheel tax advisory question to the ballot. No action was taken on either suggestion.
An amendment to the ordinance to add a Dec. 31, 2022 sunset to the wheel tax passed with a 13 to 8 vote.
The amended ordinance carried with a 15 to 6 vote.
The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors’ next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 18 at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill.