Eau Claire County Passes $30 Wheel Tax

Local Vehicle Registration Fee Seen As Tool To Offset Rising Debt Payments From Road Rehab Projects

traffic on the interstate
Alex Brandon/AP Photo

Eau Claire County has approved a $30 local vehicle registration fee to offset borrowing for local road and bridge repairs, adding it to a list of 28 counties and municipalities using wheel taxes to help pay for roads.

By a 20-9 vote the Eau Claire County Board passed the $30 wheel tax, which will go into effect January 1. It’s expected to raise around $2.4 million annually that will be earmarked for road projects. The Eau Claire County Highway Department reported that 29 percent of its budget now goes toward paying off loans and interest, also called debt service, that have accrued in recent years.

Supervisor Stella Pagonis said the registration fee will help offset the need for further borrowing.

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“At our current rate in two years we would be having a $13 million debt service and that’s just an enormous, enormous number,” Pagonis said. “What finance and budget is trying to do is to look for other options and so we view the vehicle registration fee as one component in our road construction funding.”

But opponents of the county registration fee call it a regressive tax that limits collections to smaller vehicles.

“It disproportionately targets and hurts low-income families,” Eau Claire County Board Supervisor Brandon Buchanan said. “A $30 registration fee hits a family making $18,000 or $24,000 a whole lot harder than it does someone making $180,000. What’s more this policy exempts vehicles 8,000 pounds or higher from having to pay a fee.”

The exemption for heavier vehicles is contained within the state statute authorizing local governments to enact wheel taxes.

Buchanan said while he voted against the wheel tax, he understands the county’s need to find additional funding to pay for roads and bridges. He said he’s frustrated that state lawmakers aren’t doing more to increase state transportation aids to counties and municipalities. Instead, Buchanan said they’re funneling money to the I-94 expansion in southeastern.

“Whether or not you supported this fee because you thought it was necessary to fix our roads or whether you opposed this fee because it hurts low income families… either way I’m asking everyone to call Gov. Scott Walker and tell him to stop cutting road funding to fund corporate Foxconn style giveaways,” he said.

In June, the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee passed a plan to use $22 million in federal funds toward the completion of the Interstate-94 North-South project between Milwaukee and the Illinois border.

According to the state Department of Transportation, nine counties and 19 municipalities have imposed local vehicle registration fees.