Editor's note: This version has been updated to correct the names of the aldermen who voted to repeal the city ordinance.
Marathon County residents will see higher vehicle registration prices beginning in December, after the county board on Tuesday approved a one-year $25 per vehicle wheel tax.
County board members said the tax is necessary because the county has spent down a reserve fund of $14 million to cover losses in state funding. The state could restore some of that money, but it’s not expected to be enough to avoid needing the wheel tax.
“This is a terrible idea but it’s the best option we got,” says County Supervisor John Robinson.
When the county's wheel tax expires next year, Wausau residents could pay their own $20 wheel tax if voters approve a referendum in the Nov. 8 election. Wausau Mayor Rob Mielke initially asked finance committee members this month to recommend repealing a 2006 Wausau ordinance that requires a referendum before adding new fees or taxes. That would open the door for the council to implement the fees without voter input. Following a wave of criticism, Mielke softened his position and asked the council to consider a referendum for the wheel tax instead.
Mielke also petitioned the county to give Wausau $650,000 from its own wheel tax—the annual amount Wausau expects to generate if the wheel tax referendum passes. That request was denied because it’s illegal under state law, according to an opinion by Marathon County Corporation Counsel Scott Corbett.
Only two city aldermen—Romey Wagner and David Nutting — voted in favor of repealing the ordinance requiring voter input for new fees. Alderman Tom Neal says the ordinance "makes our job harder" as council representatives, though he ultimately voted to support a referendum.
If Wausau voters approve the proposed city wheel tax during the Nov. 8 election, the fees would be imposed Jan. 1, 2018, after the county's tax plan expires to avoid a double whammy. The majority of the city's estimated $650,000 wheel tax funds would go to pay for repairing or rebuilding Wausau's rapidly deteriorating roads, while $50,000 would go toward pubic transportation efforts.