“Turnout for Transportation” Feedback
Local officials weigh in on the harsh realities of transportation funding.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Weighs In
"Those who wonder whether Milwaukee County really needs a $60 vehicle registration fee as proposed by County Executive Chris Abele in the 2017 county budget should pay attention to a memo sent this week to the County Board by County Comptroller Scott Manske. Turns out, $60 may not be enough.
Some supervisors such as Deanna Alexander say the county should find places to cut to cover for the transit shortfall. And where would that be? The Sheriff’s Department? Mental health care? Efforts to reduce homelessness?
We’re certainly willing to listen to any and all ideas that Alexander or anyone else might have to avoid the registration fee. And Abele should be willing to listen, too. But transit is important to Milwaukee County residents and deserves to be supported.
Abele has come up with a reasonable answer. Unless there’s a better answer that can actually be achieved this year, supervisors should heed Manske’s warning and approve the vehicle registration fee."
Urban Milwaukee Article
“In short, Abele did a good job for years squeezing expenses and using federal stimulus money to maintain services and avoid big tax increases, but that’s no longer possible. Simply to keep county government going as is will require a major increase in revenue.
County Comptroller Scott Manske’s recent analysis of Abele’s budget concluded the $60 wheel tax is needed, given the county’s “significant operating structural deficit” and rising transportation costs. “Without major changes in passenger rates or route reductions in the next five-years, the… transit operating system will consume a majority of the VRF funding at the proposed $60 rate. At the same time, the transportation system has capital needs in the next five years of $82 million. These…include restoration of County highways and parkways, plus the replacement of 100 buses.”
Some (including Wasserman) believe a wheel tax is regressive, falling harder on poor residents, but that question was studied by the UW-Madison’s LaFollette School of Public Affairs for the City of Milwaukee in 2008, which found the tax was not regressive. The report, called the “Distributive Impacts of a Local Vehicle Registration Fee,” found the number of cars per household tended to rise with income of families in Wisconsin, so that “as the number of available vehicles increases, the percentage of household income that the $20 fee per vehicle would represent also increases.” As a result,” the study noted, the fee “would not impose a disparate economic burden on lower-income vehicle owners.”
That would suggest the tax is actually fairer than the moderately regressive property tax. Abele, meanwhile, has had discussions with state legislators about passing a law that would give municipalities the local control to index the wheel tax so the fee varies by the kind of car or some other approach to make it a progressive tax. The responses to the idea have so far been positive, he says.
Public Policy Forum Press
In January 2010, the Public Policy Forum examined the “immediate and substantial fiscal and programmatic challenges” facing Milwaukee County government and even posed the question of County government, “Should it stay or should it go?” At the time, the County’s structural deficit was forecast to increase to a staggering $106 million by 2014.
While County Executive Abele has been able to reduce local revenue-supported debt service and capital-related debt (by approximately $23 million and $100 million, respectively) over the past five years, one of the County’s “foremost fiscal accomplishments” according to PPF, the County faces what PPF refers to simply as “an enormous infrastructure problem.”
Addressing this infrastructure problem requires a significant cut in spending, an increase in revenue, or both. Quite simply, the County’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling. In order to rebuild and modernize infrastructure – an expectation of taxpayers – new and bold ideas are needed that focus on long term solutions for the community.
Known for his fiscally responsible approach, County Executive Abele has focused the past five years on reducing expenditures through disciplined decision-making and finding efficiencies. But now, after not proposing a property tax increase for five years, the county executive knows that the County needs new revenue just to sustain itself, which is why the county executive has proposed a new Vehicle Registration Fee (VRF) that will generate $27 million in new revenue. The community will see a direct benefit and value to their investment through better transportation infrastructure.
The VRF, which averages out to $5 per month, is, as PPF notes, “the only comprehensive new revenue option available to the County under State law,” and is “the only option the County can legally pursue if it wishes to look to the revenue side of the budget equation to finally tackle its capital, transit, and overall structural challenges in a meaningful way in 2017.”
The VRF as budgeted will allow the County to fully fund its transportation-related capital infrastructure needs, such as bus replacements and County highway, parkway, and bridge repairs, as well as help to offset a significant hole in the transit operating budget caused by decreased ridership, dwindling state and federal funding, and an unsustainable free ride program.