Wheel tax push invites spending questions Print
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 06 December 2017 20:16

The mayor of Port Washington wants the city to join a very select group of Wisconsin municipalities—the fewer than 1% of them that require their residents to pay a wheel tax.
    Mayor Tom Mlada is urging the Common Council to impose a $20 per year tax on vehicles owned by city residents—$40 a year for a typical two-car family.
    Wheel taxes are levied by only 16 of the state’s 1,931 cities, villages and counties. The taxes are collected by the state Department of Motor Vehicles and have to be spent for street and road maintenance in the taxing municipality.
    Wisconsin’s limits on local tax levies and state transportation aid that has failed to keep pace with rising construction costs make it a challenge for most communities to meet their responsibility to provide well-maintained streets and roads. Yet barely a handful resort to a wheel tax, a move that suggests fiscal desperation. If Port Washington is really in those straits, taxpayers no doubt would like to know why before being burdened with another tax.
    Mayor Mlada’s proposal to levy a vehicle tax on top of the property taxes paid by home and business owners invites questions about the city’s spending priorities. One of those priorities was on display two weeks ago when the council voted to spend $85,000 to shore up the site for the Blues Factory entertainment complex. (Ald. Mike Gasper voted against it.)
    The expenditure, when previous payments for contamination mitigation and other costs are factored in, likely raises the bill to taxpayers to more than $100,000 to make the site suitable for a risky commercial development that has attracted furious opposition.
    Not a penny of that would have to be spent if the mayor and a previous council had not insisted, in the face of strong citizen opposition, on selling the publicly owned marina parking lot for the Blues Factory.
    There would be no structural and environmental issues if the use of the land remained parking or if, as has been suggested, it is improved as a combined harbor overlook area and parking lot.
    Considering the widespread opposition to the Blues Factory, it is safe to say that many Port Washington taxpayers would prefer that the $100,000 to be paid to prepare the site—an amount  equal to half of one year’s estimated wheel tax revenue—would be spent on repaving deteriorated city streets.
    The high cost of site preparation is not the only fiscal issue dogging the Blues Factory. In its generosity to the developer, the city government has agreed to sell the site at a 50% discount—$250,000 for public land appraised at $500,000. Further, it will take years to recover the $1 million in taxpayer incentives the city has agreed to throw into the deal, which has a closing date of Jan. 18, 2018.
    Concerning the wheel tax, Mayor Mlada has discouraged the idea of holding a referendum on the tax on the grounds that getting voters to say yes “would be an uphill climb.”
    Perhaps a similar fear of a no vote was the reason the mayor and council members ignored petitions signed by about 1,000 city residents asking for a referendum on selling the marina lot for the Blues Factory.
    Had that referendum been held, a no vote (a reasonable expectation) would have saved taxpayers at least $100,000—money that could be spent to fix streets—and saved Port Washington from the intrusion of a commercial building that many in the city believe does not belong on their lakefront.