FAIRMONT - Despite several community members speaking out against a proposed "wheelage" tax, Martin County commissioners approved the $10 per vehicle tax by a 3-2 vote Tuesday.
Commissioners supporting the tax called it a tool to catch up on needed road repairs.
"All of our construction projects have been funded with a construction account from the state," explained County Engineer Kevin Peyman. "The exception has been when we bonded for projects for the ethanol plants and Walmart, and when we had some left over, we used them on the roads. No local property taxes were spent. But our [construction] account has fallen behind over time, and that means our projects are also falling behind. This year, the state gave us options for funding, either a local option sales tax or a [wheelage] tax."
A local sales tax would be about a quarter-cent to a half-cent on sales within the county, while the wheelage tax is $10 per vehicle. The money is collected when a vehicle is registered.
Some vehicles are exempt: motorcycles, collector cars and government fleet vehicles.
At $10 per vehicle, the tax will bring in an estimated $200,000, which is a small amount considering the costs of road projects. But the $200,000 will be spent on Martin County roads, not used for other state projects.
"It all comes back locally," Peyman noted.
But the dozen or so citizens in attendance were mainly township representatives, who believe they will be the ones getting short-changed.
"How is this going to be split between the cities, the county and the townships?" asked Richard Koons of Manyaska Township.
Commission chairman Elliott Belgard explained that the money is not divided up for different parts of the county, but will go toward county projects, including some small town main streets in dire need of repair.
"The county is in control of the money, and it will go toward county roads," Belgard said. "The logic behind it is that people using the roads are the ones paying the tax. You can't really go anywhere without using a county road."
Another person was concerned that the tax will rise over time. The wheelage tax can be adjusted by 2018, but that would be at the discretion of the county board.
"Right now, it's $10 or nothing," Belgard said. "There is that option in 2018, but it could always be lowered if they choose. Every year, we can come back and review, and decide if we want to drop it, and in 2018, the board at that time can decide if they want to move it up to $20 or down to $5."
John Gibeau of Ceylon spoke at the meeting, noting there are vehicles on the road that will be exempt, while farmers who have numerous vehicles and licensed farm equipment will shoulder the burden.
"I feel you're sticking it to them," he said. "I'd be more in favor of a sales tax because then you are getting everybody."
Commissioners Steven Flohrs and Steve Donnelly spoke out against the new tax. Donnelly believes the board should wait a year to see how such a tax affects other counties, while Flohrs believes the semis that are causing the most damage to local roads should be targeted.
"There should be some other way," he said. "Once that tax is put on, it'll stay on, it'll never come off ... I think there should be a fee on all the trucks that dump off corn and soybeans. I knew when those ethanol plants were approved, I thought of how were we going to maintain the roads, and that was before I was a commissioner."
Flohrs and Donnelly both voted against the tax, with Schmidtke, Belgard and Steve Pierce voting yes.