Janesville65.8°

Wheel tax off to slow start

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Catherine W. Idzerda
March 9, 2012
— Only two things are certain: death and taxes.

Get the Wisconsin Department of Transportation involved, and that formula might change.


Last year, the Janesville City Council voted to impose a $10 wheel tax on all vehicles registered to addresses within the city limits.


This week, the city announced that it wouldn't be able to start collecting those taxes until April 1 because of the programming changes needed at the Department of Transportation.


The $10 per vehicle wheel tax will be added to the DOT's car registration fees. The state will collect the money and send it back to the city.


"It's just the way their process works," said Jay Winzenz, assistant city manager and director of administrative services. "They get the list of people who need renewals 60 days ahead of time and send the notices out 30 days ahead of time."


In other words, 90 days from Jan. 1, which is April 1.


The city estimated it would raise about $550,000 through the wheel tax, or about $45,833 each month.


Starting three months late means the city will make $137,499 less this year than expected.


By state statute, the wheel tax money must be used for transportation-related projects. Each year, the city spends more than $1 million on street resurfacing and reconstruction.


Winzenz doesn't think the shortfall will set back any planned street work.


"We do try to budget somewhat conservatively," Winzenz said. "Hopefully, we'll over realize revenues in other areas."


Last year, for example, the city brought in more revenue in ambulance fees than it anticipated. In addition, many positions remained unfilled.


Janesville joins three Wisconsin cities and one Wisconsin county charging a wheel tax. The cities of Beloit and Mayville charge $10, St. Croix County charges $10, and the city of Milwaukee charges $20.


Bill would require wheel tax referendum

Wheel taxes would require voter approval through referendum under state legislation introduced in September.


Assembly Bill 295 proposed by Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, would require a referendum for any proposed wheel tax.


The bill also would require governments that already have enacted a wheel tax to "sunset their tax unless it is affirmed by voters in a referendum at the next general election." according to a Dec. 13 document from Knudson's office.


Knudson called wheel tax a "stealth tax."


"You may hear from local officials who say they don't hear any complaints about this tax. The taxpayer typically has no idea that the local tax exists since there is no transparency," Knudson wrote.


When drivers receive their registration renewal forms, the local wheel tax isn't broken out.


At the Dec. 13 public hearing before the transportation committee, officials from Mayville, a city of 5,124 south of Fond du Lac, pointed out that general transportation aids to cities had been reduced from the "intended 30 percent level to the current 18.77 level."


Mayville, which charges a $10 wheel tax, said the fee was "duly considered by the common council of the city of Mayville who answer to the city of Mayville voters."


Larry Arft, Beloit city manager, told the committee, "Having just completed preparation of a budget where the city eliminated 15 positions, including five firefighters and five police officers, the thought of losing another revenue source is certainly not welcome."


Beloit collects a $10 wheel tax, too.


Knudson pointed out that cities and counties still could enact such a tax.


"I don't wish to take away the right to have a wheel tax," Knudson said Thursday. "I just believe that voters' voices should be heard."


He's especially concerned about the lack of openness.


If nothing else, the state Department of Transportation could add a line to the vehicle reigstration documents breaking out the local wheel tax so drivers would know how much they're paying.


"Imagine if you got your tax bill and the school or technical college costs weren't broken out," Knudson said.


Knudson doesn't expect his bill to move out of committee this session.



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