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Columns
Walters: Fight over local wheel taxes isn’t over

What one senator calls local governments across Wisconsin—ranging from the Village of Tigerton (population 716) to Milwaukee County (population 957,735)—“rushing” to levy wheel taxes could still set off fireworks in the Legislature.

The push led by two GOP lawmakers—Rep. Michael Schraa, of Oshkosh, and Sen. Steve Nass, of Whitewater—to require referendums that could stop current and future wheel taxes recently got a public hearing, proving their bills aren’t dead yet.

They would prohibit any local government from levying a wheel tax without advance permission from voters who pass a referendum. Referendums could only be held on regularly scheduled elections.

The more than 25 local governments who already charge a wheel tax, or who have approved one and will soon start collecting it, would have 18 months to schedule referendums to get voters’ approval.

State officials say local wheel taxes brought in $20.6 million last year—a one-year increase of 73 percent.

For example, $20 wheel taxes in 2016 brought in $6.75 million for the City of Milwaukee; Appleton, $1.35 million; Janesville, $1.08 million; Beloit, $583,012; Iowa County, $415,496, and Town of Arena in Dane County, $417,377.

“If you want to take more money from the people, ask them whether they want to pay more or not,” Nass told the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

Local governments are “rushing” to adopt wheel taxes, Nass said.

Twelve local governments have adopted wheel taxes since 2016, including Dane County’s decision to start collecting a $28 per-vehicle tax on Oct. 1.

“It’s hard to argue that the people—the taxpayers—should not be consulted with this kind of fee increase,” added Schraa.

Local government officials say they need the option of wheel taxes to pay for soaring transportation-related costs, so the Legislature should not require referendums.

“Reject this unnecessary interference into policy decisions by local elected officials,” Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities told the Assembly committee.

Only about 1.3 percent of the 1,900 local governments that could adopt a wheel tax have done so, Witynski said.

“Trust that locally elected officials will make the best decisions they can to adequately fund street maintenance and repair,” he added.

Asked about Dane County’s plan to raise $11.6 million a year by charging a $28 wheel tax, County Executive Joe Parisi called it a “modest” surcharge and “less than a tank of gas.”

“As the fastest growing county in Wisconsin, Dane County is seeing greater demands placed on roads that a few years ago” and needs a “dedicated source of revenue,” Parisi said, adding: “The cost to run the highway department—mowing, plowing, and resurfacing our roads—is 20 percent more today than it was just a few years ago.”

But Nass told the Assembly committee of two examples where, he said, local officials abused current law:

Milwaukee County Executive Chria Abele ignored an April advisory referendum in which 72% of voters told county officials not to raise the $30 wheel tax adopted last year.

Instead, Abele proposed raising an additional $14.7 million for this year’s budget by doubling the county’s wheel tax to $60—an increase that Milwaukee County supervisors killed.

Abele was “circling back to try to get that [$60 tax] in place—ignoring the will of the people,” Nass said.

Responding to supervisors’ refusal to go to $60, Abele warned that it means “deep cuts to transit, public safety, parks and social services.”

After Janesville voters voted down a $1.2 million transportation-funding referendum, Nass said city officials doubled the wheel tax, raising it from $10 to $20.

Even if voters defeat officials who adopt a wheel tax, it stays in place—and likely keeps going up, Nass said.

But Witynski said the Legislature should look at “state and local taxation in a broad, holistic way” and not act on “one narrow, minor component of the system.”

Gov. Scott Walker and legislators cannot agree on long-term funding for and state and local roads. A $75 surcharge on hybrid vehicles and a $100 surcharge on electric vehicles was approved, however.

That means a City of Milwaukee resident who owns an electric car will pay $225 to register it this year: the $75 state fee, a $100 surcharge, a $20 city wheel tax and a $30 county wheel tax.


Letters
Your Views: Let's be grateful for St. Patrick's contributions

St. Patrick’s Catholic School was built in the 1930s--the first parochial school in Janesville.

Over 80 years, this school has provided a sound, quality Christian education to hundreds of students who have turned out to be good citizens of our Janesville community and our democratic society.

Thanks to the pastors, teachers, parents, students, volunteers and supporters who have had the opportunity to take advantage of this facility.

Let’s not worry about the school status in the future but be grateful for the service it has provided to our community for all those years.

MARY HEFFERAN

Parish member and former St. Patrick’s student

Janesville


Our_views
Thumbs up/down for Monday, Jan. 15

To the UW-Rock County basketball coach. During a Jan. 3 match-up against UW-Waukesha, Jamal Mosley lost more than his temper. He forgot the most important part of being a coach, which is to lead by example and show class through victory and defeat. Mosley let down the whole community when, police say, he assaulted a referee after the game. Perhaps the worst part is the message Mosley sent to the impressionable young men playing under him. Neither police nor college officials have said what exactly precipitated Mosley’s decision to confront a referee, but poor officiating (if that’s what irked him) is no excuse for losing one’s composure, let alone injuring somebody. Sounds like Mosley, who’s on administrative leave, is a good candidate for an anger management class. Perhaps U-Rock is offering one.

To 15 years for heroin dealer. An Elkhorn police detective urged Walworth County Judge Kristine Drettwan to send Jason Wedell to prison for even longer than the 15 to 20

years recommended by the state. But Drettwan didn’t let Wedell off easy. He was convicted of first-degree reckless homicide in the overdose death of one of his friends, whom Wedell supplied with fentanyl-laced heroin. The case shows prosecutors are holding dealers responsible for the deaths of their customers. Punishment must play a role in combating the opioid epidemic. Wedell’s attorney argued Wedell needed treatment, not a long prison term, but dealers are a different breed of addict. They don’t deserve the same second-chance benefit that regular users get. The best way to handle Wedell is to keep him behind bars.

To rushing to ease air pollution rules. The Republican bill approved by a state Senate committee last week is similar to the one Republicans are pushing to curb wetland

protections. Both bills seek to remove state rules and subject businesses to only federal standards. Republicans say the state rules are unnecessary, but how can they be so sure? The state rules exist because legislators in the past decided federal standards are inadequate. The state regulates as many as 358 pollutants not covered under federal law, but that doesn’t necessarily make them “less dangerous.” With asthma, allergies and other respiratory ailments on the rise, especially among children, deregulation proposals shouldn’t get fast-track treatment. The Legislature should slow down and turn to science to determine which pollutants threaten public health and which don’t.

To 26 miles of new fiber-optic cable. The beauty of this project is that a federal program will pick up $1.6 million of the $2 million price tag—a nearly 75 percent

discount for the Janesville School District. Chief Information Officer Robert Smiley said the district’s internet will go from a two-lane road to “our own private Interstate.” The district desperately needs the upgrade, which parents learned last year during a January ice storm. The district made a decision to hold school that day, though many bus drivers discovered they couldn’t complete their routes because of poor road conditions. The resulting confusion prompted many parents to call the district, but its lines couldn’t handle the call volume. The district also struggled to reach parents with emergency alerts. Under the new setup, the district can discard its old system and embrace new technologies requiring faster internet speeds.


Columns
Bremel: Which vision will prevail for Janesville?

As the host of a community radio program, I’m often frustrated by the polarized nature of today’s society, especially when it permeates local communities like Janesville. In the passion for their ideals, backers of each of the two visions of the downtown ARISE initiative are in danger of escalating their disagreements into a dysfunctional mess.

That prediction is not without evidence as the Monterey Dam issue has already escalated to a level that has cost the city at least one grant, and possibly others, and will ultimately increase the costs associated with whatever ultimately happens with the dam.

One vision of Janesville’s downtown includes a bright, sunny sky with a summer breeze kissing the hundreds of pedestrians, bikers and river lovers around the area. They are dining at outdoor cafes, fishing, kayaking, shopping, working out, enjoying an interactive water feature and anticipating a summer festival filled with activities. It’s a video clip right out of Mayberry, though updated with a 21st century look.

The other vision is more like Gotham City. A series of dark, dirty streets and sidewalks with cars competing for the short supply of parking spaces if only to get its occupants into a run-down tavern or two without walking. A muddy-bottomed smelly river laps at the weathered steps of the old town square, while a mixture of litter takes flight with each wind gust through a vacant, vandalized exercise court and non-functional water park.

Oh, if only there were a superhero to come to the rescue!

Since neither of these visions are currently reality, my question is simple: Which vision are you behind?

Some callers to my program are almost gleeful in their disparagement of any ideas put forth if they are in any way connected to the success of ARISE. Others, mostly advocates of the plan, seem to go out of their way to avoid truly listening to residents with concerns about aspects of the project.

From my position, it is incumbent on our city leaders to make the first move in resolving this stalemate between the city and a group of residents. It’s also up to disgruntled residents not to slap the olive branch out of the hands of city leaders.

For me, I’m a realist. Strangely, that makes me an oddity in today’s world, which wants to pigeon-hole and label everyone. I’m either a pessimist spreading gloom by asking questions and looking for weaknesses in plans before they are implemented, or I’m a mindless city cheerleader who wants to waste tax dollars by hoping for the best possible outcome in a city plan that can’t possibly succeed.

In the end, the tale will end up with only one vision as reality. I’m hoping all involved will “arise” and join in a unified goal of giving downtown Janesville the best chance to thrive instead of making it into a place where the only rescue can be from a superhero.