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You Ask, We Answer: What does the wheel tax pay for?

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YAWA Wheel Tax 1 01-15-2021
YAWA Wheel Tax 2 01-15-2021
Bridge on Spooner Avenue/Highway A over Otter Creek that was repaired thanks to funds from the vehicle registration fee/wheel tax.

EAU CLAIRE COUNTY (WQOW) - For Friday's You Ask, We Answer, several viewers are wondering how much money is generated from Eau Claire County's wheel tax that's been in place since 2019 and what it's used for.

Eau Claire County residents have been paying a $30 vehicle registration fee, also known as a wheel tax, for two years now. But what does it pay for?

County officials say it helps with road repair projects like the bridge on Spooner Avenue over Otter Creek in Altoona.

Eau Claire County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said in 2019, the county received $2.45 million from the wheel tax. For 2020, they project the tax will generate $2.48 million.

Johnson said without the vehicle registration fee, the highway department would only be able to replace one bridge a year with state and federal aid.

In 2020, they replaced or improved five bridges and one highway.

"The bridges are on County Highway O, County Highway V, County Highway D, and then County Highway A, and the other bridge we're working on is County Highway K in Fall Creek," Johnson said.

Eau Claire County Board Chairperson Nick Smiar said the wheel tax is not necessarily a tax on wheels, but on the vehicle registration itself.

"It's a flat fee across the board.  It does not depend on the number of wheels on your vehicle," Smiar said.

Smiar added prior to about 10 years ago, our property tax levy money paid for our roads, but with the increasing number of roads and residents in the county, the need for more maintenance and repairs grew.

"We reached a point where we had to begin to borrow every year, about $6 million a year so the registration fee offsets that," Smiar said. "You're paying it now rather than paying it through borrowing and then paying the interest on it."

Others have asked News 18 if the wheel tax is going to expire. Smiar said at this point, the ordinance is here to stay.

"If it sunsets while you still have that condition happening, then it's difficult to re-do it.  It's easier to set it in place and when the condition changes, then you can change the ordinance," Smiar said.

Wisconsin law allows villages, towns, cities or counties to collect an annual wheel tax on top of the regular annual registration fee paid for a vehicle.

Chippewa County's $10 wheel tax was implemented in 2015 and expired at the end of 2019.

Chippewa County Highway Commissioner Brian Kelley said that wheel tax generated about $540,000 a year, which was used to replenish the highway department's winter maintenance fund.

Kelley said at the end of 2014, the winter maintenance fund had a negative balance of -$1,249,579. At the end of 2019, that fund had a positive balance of $391,761 thanks to the wheel tax.

He said the county has since invested additional funds into their winter maintenance budget to sustain the fund balance now that the wheel tax has "sunset" or expired. He added the $10 wheel tax was based on the amount of funding that the county needed to reach.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, there are 13 counties that currently have a wheel tax, with $10 being the lowest and $30 being the highest. By state law, revenue generated from the wheel tax must only be used for transportation related purposes.

To see what projects were funded in Eau Claire County by the vehicle registration fee/wheel tax, you can look at this interactive map on the county's website. Clicking on the individual dots on the map can also tell you when the project happened and how much it cost.

If you have a question you'd like answered, tap/click here.

You Ask We Answer

At News 18 we don't just tell you the news, we listen to you too. That is why we created "You Ask, We Answer."

Katrina Lim

Katrina Lim joined the News 18 team in August 2019 as a multimedia journalist. She was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey but has lived in all time zones of the contiguous U.S.A.

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