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La Crosse County referendum to give voters choice for funding road repairs

By: Nate Beck, [email protected]//October 16, 2018//

La Crosse County referendum to give voters choice for funding road repairs

By: Nate Beck, [email protected]//October 16, 2018//

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With a mounting list of road repairs, La Crosse County officials are taking the somewhat unusual step of asking local voters just what they should do.

In the general election this fall, La Crosse County voters will have an opportunity to pick from a smorgasbord of options to drum up $5 million more a year for road work. Specifically, this year’s ballot will have four road-related referendum questions.

Three of them, if approved, would call for raising taxes to generate money to pay for $101 million worth of infrastructure work the county estimates it needs. In putting the question on the ballot, county officials are essentially putting a trio of road-funding options before voters and asking them which is the best.

La Crosse County has been borrowing about $2.7 million annually in recent years to pay for new projects and keep up with rising materials costs and inflation, said Ron Chamberlain, La Crosse County highway commissioner. The county is now nearing a point where its annual interest payments on the borrowing could come to about $2.7 million, he said.

La Crosse clearly needs more revenue, he said. Local officials are now interested in learning what way voters favor for raising it.

“Basically, the county is trying to provide information to make an informed decision,” Chamberlain said. “I am not advocating one way or the other. That information (referendum results) would provide the policy makers and county board some basis as to what the voters think we should do about the problem.”

The referendum questions on the ballot on Nov. 6 are non-binding. That means that, regardless of how the vote comes out, local officials will be under no mandate to pursue particular policies. But the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors will nonetheless be watching the results closely.

Among the questions up for consideration:

  • Do voters agree that La Crosse County needs to spend $5 million on roads yearly to whittle down a list of $101 million in needed repairs?
  • Should La Crosse County adopt a $56-a-year wheel tax to pay for roads? Such a tax would be expected to generate about $5 million a year in revenue.
  • Should the county impose a 15 percent property tax increase to carry out a “pay-as-you-go” plan, which would have the county borrow $5 million for roads and pay it off in the same year.
  • Lastly, should the county adopt a 0.5 percent sales tax on tourism-related  purchases? Such a tax would generate an estimated $6.6 million. Of that, $5 million would go to roads under the county’s jurisdiction and $1.6 million would be divvied up among the city of La Crosse and nearby villages for their road projects.

The sales-tax referendum question has actually been passed in La Crosse County before. In 2017, 55 percent of the voters who cast ballots in an election held in April that year approved a plan to place a sales tax on tourism-related purchases.

Despite the local support, the proposal failed when it went before the state Legislature. It wasn’t even put to a vote. Among its opponents was the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce, who lobbied the legislature to stop the measure, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

Apart from a sales tax, La Crosse County voters will be asked this fall to approve a $56-a-year wheel tax, an amount Chamberlain acknowledges is higher than is collected in other parts of the state. Wheel taxes adopted in recent years have typically run between $20 and $30.

With flat or declining sources of state and federal revenue, municipalities have increasingly turned to wheel taxes to pay for transportation projects. A recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report found their use has increased sixfold. In 2011, there were only four municipalities that had wheel taxes; six years later, there were 27. The money raised by wheel taxes has nearly tripled in that same time, going from from $7.1 million to $20.7 million.

The increased reliance on wheel taxes comes as the state has been contributing less and less to road projects. The Wisconsin Policy Forum found that the state’s payments to local-aid programs actually rose by 15.5 percent from 2007 to 2017, going from a total of $412 million to $475.7 million. Adjusted for inflation, though, these aid programs declined by 2.3 percent, or by $11.3 million.

Chamberlain said La Crosse County has felt the effects of these policies.

“There doesn’t seem to be a desire to make a decision on the state level or the federal level,” he said. “Not only do the locals have to make a local decision, we also have to look at taking on a bigger share, since those decisions are not being made.”


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