Naomi Waxman

Experts Say County Wheel Tax Needed

14% of residents have no car, need transit system the tax would fund.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Nov 1st, 2016 10:34 am
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Policy experts warn that a decision not to implement a vehicle registration fee could have profound consequences for Milwaukee bus riders. Photo by Alhaji Camera.

Policy experts warn that a decision not to implement a vehicle registration fee could have profound consequences for Milwaukee bus riders. Photo by Alhaji Camera.

A $60 county vehicle registration fee, known as the “wheel tax,” may be unpopular, but it is necessary to maintain public transportation services for people who rely on the bus, experts say. (Yesterday a county board committee reduced it to a $30 wheel tax.)

A decision not to implement such a fee could have profound consequences for low-income Milwaukee residents, according to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Associate Professor of Urban Planning Robert Schneider. Citing census data, he stated that more than 54,000 households in the county, approximately 14 percent, do not own a motor vehicle.

“Those people rely on the transit system to get to jobs and shopping and other activities throughout their week,” Schneider said. “The transit system for Milwaukee County is an essential public service.”

In a 2015 report on barriers to employment in Milwaukee, the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum found that transportation challenges are already common among unemployed jobseekers.

Salvation Army employee Jenny Von Helms speaks to the Milwaukee County Board’s Finance and Audit Committee about the proposed 2017 county budget. Photo by Naomi Waxman.

Salvation Army employee Jenny Von Helms speaks to the Milwaukee County Board’s Finance and Audit Committee about the proposed 2017 county budget. Photo by Naomi Waxman.

The proposal to implement the vehicle registration fee is included in Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s 2017 budget. The fee would generate $27.1 million in 2017, providing revenue for public transportation as well as county road improvements. It would take effect March 1, 2017.

The Public Policy Forum devoted four pages of its executive budget brief on the proposed 2017 Milwaukee County budget to the vehicle registration fee proposal, noting that the county has been deferring needed infrastructure projects for more than a decade.The proposal to implement the vehicle registration fee is included in Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s 2017 budget. The fee would generate $27.1 million in 2017, providing revenue for public transportation as well as county road improvements. It would take effect March 1, 2017.

“That approach has caught up to it at the same time that expensive new needs have emerged,” according to the budget brief. “Ultimately, support for the proposed vehicle registration fee should be determined by the value that residents place on the county’s existing levels of service,” it concluded.

A memo released by county Comptroller Scott Manske echoed the forum’s observations.

“I have found that within the next five years, without major changes in passenger rates or route reductions, the fixed route transit operating system will need $28 million of additional local support on an annual basis,” he wrote.

Manske also noted that the restoration of county highways and parkways would require $82 million, in addition to the costs associated with 100 buses that need to be replaced.

Schneider pointed out that a high-quality transit system allows Milwaukee to remain competitive with other regions in terms of attracting residents and employers. It also improves the quality of life for city residents who do not own a vehicle or choose to only drive occasionally. He stressed the importance of taking action now. Waiting, he stated, would cause the deficit hole to grow and become even more difficult to fill.

“In the long term, it would be great to see some sort of regional sales tax that would support public transit to provide a solid foundation for operations and future capital improvements,” said Schneider. “I think there are many people who will be impacted negatively if funding and service cuts continue with the Milwaukee County transit system.”

County residents expressed their displeasure with the proposed fee at a recent listening session held by the Milwaukee County Board’s Finance and Audit Committee at the MPS Administration Building. Though only 10 individuals spoke at the 9 a.m. meeting, those who addressed the committee on the subject said they were opposed to the vehicle registration fee.

“Sixty dollars is very high. People are already riding around [without] insurance because they can’t pay,” said James Macon, president of the Local 998 Amalgamated Transit Union. “I am a Bucks fan but I wish [Abele] would fight for the county the way he did for the Bucks arena and we wouldn’t be in a hole here,” he added.

On Monday, the Finance and Audit Committee unanimously approved an amendment by Chairman Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. to substitute a $30 vehicle registration fee instead of the $60 vehicle registration fee proposed by the County Executive.

The County Board held a public hearing on Monday, Oct. 31, on Abele’s recommended budget. The finance committee is expected to review budget amendments on Nov. 2 and the full board will vote on the budget on Nov. 7.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

16 thoughts on “Experts Say County Wheel Tax Needed”

  1. Jason says:

    Naomi, who are these experts you site. All I see is one government employees opinion.

  2. Sam says:

    @Jason

    University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Associate Professor of Urban Planning Robert Schneider

    The Public Policy Forum

    County Comptroller Scott Manske

  3. Sam says:

    Also, your comment implies that government employees cannot be experts. I hope that’s not what you meant.

  4. WashCoRepub says:

    I see this as an opportunity for Milwaukee to distinguish itself from the rest of the “Rust Belt” cities by enacting the wheel tax, and also increasing it steadily every year. By making individual vehicle ownership increasingly unaffordable, this will drive vast swaths of the population towards multi-modal, sustainable transportation such as streetcars, (future) trains, buses and bicycles. It will also decrease CO2 emissions and other harmful chemicals in the environment.

    It will discourage suburban development, since people unable to afford a personal vehicle will be unable to commute to jobs in the suburbs or collar counties.

    Let the collar counties encourage vehicle ownership! Milwaukee can be on the cusp of real Progressive change.

  5. Tim says:

    WashCoRepub, you’re about half-right. The first step is to get drivers to pay the actual costs for the roads and get that off the property tax. To improve, Milwaukee has to reduce the property tax rate, increase safety, improve education and fund more economic development… we can’t do those things by doubling our property taxes so our suburban neighbors have a fast commute.

  6. CGB says:

    Tim you forget about city residents whose career field doesn’t supply jobs within the city limits and have to commute OUT of the city to get to work. Not all drivers who use Milwaukee’s roads are “suburban neighbors”. That’s just rude stereotyping. Also, not all Milwaukee residents can give up driving and rely only on public transportation.

  7. Tim says:

    CGB, Thank you for pointing out that some people in Milwaukee drive too! Like I said, make drivers pay their own costs… get roads off the property tax, and Milwaukee will have more resources available to improve where it actually counts.

  8. A G says:

    Tim is right… and we should probably do the same with others parts of the city and county as well and only charge people for what they use. For example, school costs should only be paid by parents, bike paths by creating an annual bike tax, if you want to use parks then you need a park permit w/ fee, and no more subsidizing mental health care as that should be solely paid for by those getting treatment, etc. No more of this subsidizing of services or needs that only some people use.

  9. Casey says:

    Wheel tax and mileage/odometer tax tied to GVW would be great!

  10. Jason says:

    Hey Sam, Again where are the experts. Scott Manske is an accountant and a politician, his opinion is about the same as a Starbucks Barista. Robert Schneider is an associate professor (training wheels) in his thirties. In his bio. I see a little in his resume about being a bike and pedestrian expert(again training wheels). How is his experience pertinent in such a vast issues where so many lives are effected? Lastly, this is a blue County. Do you really want to make it purple?

  11. PMD says:

    Holy massive hypocrite alert! Jason just cited a right-wing opinion columnist in the most recent Data Wonk piece and held him up as some kind of respected expert on the economy.

  12. Tom D says:

    CGB (post 6): The jobs that only exist outside Milwaukee County are those that pay well above minimum wage (providing enough to pay an extra $5/month—or $2.50/month if the fee is cut to $30)!

  13. Joe says:

    not all Milwaukee residents can give up driving and rely only on public transportation

    It is precisely because of a failure to raise taxes and invest in transit infrastructure that this continues to be the case. Seems the tail is wagging the dog.

  14. A G says:

    Tim is right, and we should probably do the same with others parts of the city and county as well and only charge people for what they use. For example, school costs should only be paid by parents, bike paths by creating an annual bike tax, if you want to use parks then you need a park permit w/ fee, and no more subsidizing mental health care as that should be solely paid for by those getting treatment, etc. No more subsidizing of services or needs that only some people use.

  15. Milwaukee Native says:

    AG, were your remarks about ending all collective services serious?

    In what Brave New World is that a winning model? And how much might it cost to create fences around all those parks to keep out anyone unable to pay such a fee? And what happens to poor people? Do they simply stop getting access to any services? Then what?

    And how might this promote a livable community?

  16. Sam says:

    @ Jason

    Expert: a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.

    Run the numbers Manske quotes and determine whether or not his professional opinion holds water, you do acknowledge he is an accountant (requires some level of knowledge and skill above a barista) after all.

    Robert Schneider has a Ph.D from Berkeley and a Masters degree from UNC in regional planning. What’s you’re threshold? His “training wheels” are attached to some minimally authoritative and comprehensive education.

    I’m not for or against this proposal, but disparaging the opinions of “experts” because you don’t like what they have to say is kinda ridiculous.

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