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Wheel tax included in Janesville budget

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
November 29, 2011
— In approving the city of Janesville's 2012 budget Monday, the city council created a new fee that is seldom used in Wisconsin—a $10 wheel tax that will be tacked on to every vehicle license registration a resident holds.

One resident who spoke against the fee at a public hearing called it "the straw that broke the camel's back."


Monday's council vote on the budget was 4-2, with Kathy Voskuil, Russ Steeber, Yuri Rashkin and Deb Dongarra-Adams voting in favor and Tom McDonald and Sam Liebert voting against. Six council members are seated after George Brunner's recently resigned.


The budget calls for total expenditures of $45 million without tax increment financing, or a .46 percent increase. The tax levy—money that must be raised with property taxes—increases by 3.12 percent.


That means the owner of an average home assessed at $120,100 would pay $949 in city and library taxes—a decrease of $5.32. The decrease in the tax rate is the result of the recent citywide revaluation, which increased the overall value of the city.


The budget keeps two police officers and one deputy fire chief position vacant. It also eliminates several administrative positions and keeps several others vacant, including that of the community development director.


The budget also calls for a 21 percent increase in the water rate.


Several people spoke before the meeting against the wheel tax.


Stephen Flood, 828 Sentinel Drive, said he has always been proud of Janesville's frugal city government, but he said the new fee would cost him $40 a year.


"Enough is enough with phony fees," he said. The city needs to delay projects that don't need to be done now and that can be done when people are working, he said.


"It's a little bit like the straw that breaks the camel's back."


Dianna Lund, 329 N. Academy, suggested an expiration fee on the wheel tax after several years. She cited Rockford's wheel tax, which rose from $6 in the 1970s to almost $200 today.


Liebert agreed, saying it's possible the state will increase aid in the future.


City Manager Eric Levitt said the council should not count on more funds from the state. The continued decrease in state aid in past years means the city has to find new revenue to provide the same services, he said.


A sunset clause would set an expectation among residents that the fee would expire, he said.


Nobody seconded Liebert's suggestion.


McDonald supported the tax because the money would be used for street maintenance that is sorely needed. He said he prefers not to borrow for street maintenance, which the city started doing in 2006.


McDonald also warned the street maintenance problem would increase because streets built in the population boom of the 1990s and the 2000s will soon need maintenance.


McDonald said he did not vote for the budget for the same reasons he has not voted for it in past years: Councils continue to give city employees raises while cutting staff.


Since McDonald was voted onto the council in 2008, "the economy has been in the tank," he said. Taxpayers' wages have been frozen or cut. Some have lost their jobs, and others are on fixed incomes.


"I just can't justify taking money from those people and turning around and giving public employees raises with that money," McDonald said.


The 2012 budget includes raises for police officers, firefighters, bus drivers and public works employees.


"The other thing that this budget does is eliminate jobs," McDonald said. "By eliminating jobs, we are not filling positions." That contributes to unemployment numbers and affects services, but the council then takes that savings and gives bonuses and raises to the remaining staff, he said.


After the meeting, Liebert said he voted against the budget because he preferred a sunset clause on the wheel tax and would have filled the police officer and deputy fire chief positions.


Councilman Russ Steeber said the council has approved a budget that is "reasonable and maintains services at a high level and keeps that core infrastructure intact."


The vehicle registration fee is "one of those things you look at and kind of cringe," Steeber said. "It is another form of a tax. It almost looks like a shell game. The reality is we had to look at some way to increase revenue to make up for what we are losing."


He said money collected through the fee is similar to a user fee because it will be used to maintain streets.



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