By Ryan Bakken

Forum News Service

Forty-seven of Minnesota’s 87 counties will be enacting a $10 wheelage tax to pay for road and bridge repairs in 2014.

Northwestern corner counties had a similar ratio for passing the tax, as Beltrami, Clearwater, Marshall, Norman, Pennington and Polk county boards voted for it. Defeating the proposal were the county boards in Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Red Lake and Roseau counties.

The Association of Minnesota Counties estimates that, based on the number of vehicles registered in each county, the 47 counties would collect $33.1 million. Beltrami would collect $340,000, Clearwater $97,000, Marshall $115,000, Norman $76,000, Pennington $137,000 and Polk $304,000.

"The wheelage tax is essentially a user fee, which is a sensible option outside of property taxes for raising funds locally to pay for local transportation improvements," Joe Vene, a Beltrami County commissioner who is the president of the Association of Minnesota Counties, said in a news release.

Revenue from the tax must be deposited in a county’s road and bridge fund and must be used for highway purposes.

The tax is added to license tab renewal fees. Categories that are not subject to the tax are motorcycles, mopeds, trailers, semi-trailers, all-terrain vehicles, collector vehicles and tax-exempt vehicles.

Eighteen of the state’s 25 most populous counties will impose the tax. About three-fourths of Minnesotans live in those counties.

"The flexibility of each county being able to decide whether or not the wheelage tax is right for their community is a wonderful example of local control and decision-making," Vene said in the news release.

"Another positive is that counties can revisit the wheelage tax by August 1 of each year and decide to enact, rescind or leave it alone."

Before this year’s session, the Legislature allowed only Twin Cities metro counties the authority to levy a wheelage tax. Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington counties levied $5 in 2013. All approving counties will levy $10 per vehicle in 2014.

Although the state gives each county a share of gas tax money to repair major roads, called County State Aid Highways, many miles of lesser-traveled county roads don’t qualify. The lesser-traveled roads had to be repaired with money from county property taxes.

So, the wheelage tax gives the county flexibility because it can be used on any county road.

With gasoline taxes shrinking due to better-mileage vehicles and fewer miles driven, experts say other sources of revenue are needed for road infrastructure. The wheelage tax is considered more equitable than general taxes because they’re paid by drivers who use the roads. Residents without vehicles don’t pay while those with more vehicles pay more.