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Public hearing on wheelage tax spurs debate on payment for roads projects

BEMIDJI — The Beltrami County Board of Commissioners began its meeting Tuesday with a public hearing on a proposed wheelage tax, before discussing payment options for a portion of what county engineer Bruce Hasbargen said is $80 million in necessary road projects.

Following the hearing, that method of payment was a subject of some debate, with one commissioner targeting the amount of money in the county’s reserve fund — $40.8 million.

District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick said the amount was “excessive.”

The comment came partly as a result of what was close to an equal amount of opposition to and support of the tax — $10 annually for auto owners. The board will vote whether to impose the tax at their next meeting, scheduled for July 16.

Mark Paulson, a Lammers Township resident, was one of eight who addressed the board.

“Another $10 per vehicle I don’t think is going to break anyone’s back,” he said. “I don’t know for sure, but I believe you would have paid more than $10 per year if (the legislature) passed the gas tax.”

The wheelage tax would require auto owners to pay $10 when registering their vehicles, starting in January, and could be reviewed for continuance or cancellation each year. It would not, however, be required for motorcycle, registered classic car or trailer owners, county administrator Kay Mack said.

The $80 million in road projects Hasbargen said are needed have been whittled down to $16 million the board is willing to fund. That dollar amount would cover 401 miles of county roads, according to information provided by Hasbargen.

“The pavement system in the county is in bad shape,” he said matter-of-factly.

Hasbargen cited information, compiled by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, that painted a picture detailing what roads require what actions. One hundred and seventy-nine miles of roads are in need of sealcoating ($25,000 per mile); 15 need overlaying ($250,000 per mile) 56 need milling and filling ($250,000 per mile); 118 need to be removed and resurfaced ($350,000 per mile); and 21 need reconstruction ($750,000 to $1 million per mile), according to Hasbargen.

Chuck Buss, a Bemidji Township resident, opposed the tax.

“I really think that you’re trying to take the easy way out,” he told the board. “And the state took the easy way out when they didn’t pass the gas tax. … and because they didn’t have enough guts to do what they should have done, they said ‘you go ahead and take our burden and you take care of it.’”

The board has proposed using $8 million in capital improvement bonds, combined with $8 million in reserve funds to pay for the project. The $340,000 in revenue the wheelage tax would create would cover the debt service on the bonds, Mack said.

Lucachick argued that more money should be pulled from county reserves for road projects, making the wheelage tax and the proposed $8 million in bonds unnecessary. The surplus represents about eight months worth of operating costs.

“There is no policy and there is no requirement for the amount (in the reserve fund),” he said. “So instead of six months of reserves, you could go down to four months of operating fund reserves. That would set (aside) about $20 million that would completely fund this road project with no wheelage tax, no bonding, no payment to the state. … It’s money that the taxpayers gave us, that our fellow, past commissioners put aside into a reserve that I personally feel is excessive.”

District 2 Commissioner Joe Vene disagreed.

“I will not support reducing the reserves down to a four-month level,” he said. “I could change that in time based on the variables that either prevail or don’t prevail, but I feel uncomfortable visualizing a reduction down to that level.”

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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