The dysfunctional wheels of government in Wausau and Marathon County never seem to miss a beat. From the outside, I have to echo the sentiments of John Lennon's 1980 song and say, "I don't miss the meetings."
However, this recent discussion of the wheel tax has been so devoid of factual context or a basic understanding of public finance that a few words might be in order.
The short answer is that the wheel tax is a 19th century device for revenue collection that has no place in modern local governments. That’s why hardly anyone uses it in Wisconsin.
The wheel tax is a regressive tax. The six-figure earner with the BMW pays the same as the struggling owner of a used Chevy.
It also fails to meet the tests for a “good fee.” Governments can use fees to send price signals that discourage over-consumption. But taxing the existence of a car has nothing to do with how much wear and tear it puts on roads. Moreover, exempting big trucks—as this law does—makes no sense if you are trying to fairly distribute costs to road users.
How should Marathon County fund roads and bridges? Plan ahead and use debt financing. In the last five years, county supervisors have bragged about lowering or freezing the mill rate. Sensible fiscal restraint is to be applauded. However, don't come back after an election-year tax-cut and whine about a backlog of road projects. That’s disingenuous to say the least.
Marathon County has an annual operating budget of $164.7 million and outstanding general obligation debt (excluding Central Wisconsin Airport) of only $4.6 million. Interest rates are low. If the county needs a one-time shot of $2.9 million for infrastructure, then county leaders should borrow the money.
In fact, that would be the classic “good reason” to use public debt. In the private sector, capital assets are depreciated, effectively expensing them over their useful lifetimes. If a new bridge is going to benefit taxpayers today and taxpayers for the next 20 years, then a 20-year bond insures that all bridge users—now and in the future—pay their fair share.
For the city's proposed wheel tax, if you believe the money is for roads then I have a bridge I would like to sell to you.
Remember, the $2.5 million in federal road aid for Thomas Street that Wausau lost for violating the constitutional rights of citizens. That's being made up by additional borrowing in Tax Incremental District (TID) No. 6.
The city—with a fraction of the county's operating budget—has amassed outstanding debt of $66.7 million, mostly through the mismanagement of economic development projects and failure to close TIDs in a timely manner.
Further, a look at city finances for the last few years will show repeated shifts of money away from Public Works to other areas. Wausau's tax rates are already high relative to its peers. The city needs to get its fiscal house in order, not find a new revenue source.
We don't need to reinvent a bygone-era's tax. Both the city and county are using road conditions to tug at our heart strings for more revenue. That's dishonest.
Let your heart not be moved, and insist on accountability. Wausau and Marathon County deserve public officials who are competent and creative, not ones who can only solve problems by digging deeper into our pockets.
Keene Winters is a financial planner and served as Wausau’s Dist. 6 alderman 2012–2016