County May Consider Reducing Wheel Tax

Many Kosciusko County residents were taken by surprise when the wheel tax and surtax went into effect in January.
Even those who knew it was coming have expressed shock at the $40 wheel tax applied to everything not covered by the $25 surtax – from small tow trailers to tractors and semi trailers. Council President Bob Sanders said Wednesday he has taken numerous complaints and that council may revisit the fee structure to see if they can bring it in line with neighboring counties, some of which charge as little as $7.50 for small trailers.
In the meantime, he said he doesn’t want residents directing their anger at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Passed in June to help maintain roads throughout the county without further straining the budget, the charges are expected to generate close to $2 million a year during its 20-year term. Even then, Sanders observed, it will only be enough to maintain roads at the current level. 
The charges have been available under state law since 1980 and were already enacted in some surrounding counties, including Whitley, which has a $10 surtax and sliding-scale wheel tax with a $20 max; and Elkhart, which charges a $25 surtax and a wheel tax ranging from $10 to $30. Noble County took the percentage option on the surtax – 6 percent, with a minimum fee of $7.50 – and its wheel tax ranges from $7.50 to $30; Marshall, Fulton and Wabash have not enacted the taxes. 
Elkhart set its fees in 2010 and later increased them, according to Auditor Pauline Graff. She said together they generate about $4.6 million a year. Whitley County sees around $400,000 a year.
Kosciusko officials began discussing the fees last summer after hearing that the budget may run a $4.4 million shortfall by 2016, and that the Highway Department had been subsidized by other funds for a few years. The vehicle fees are meant to keep the department self-sustaining, with the remainder split among Kosciusko towns and cities.
Sanders recalled that in discussions ahead of passing the fees, the point was raised that “the state said we will not give you any more money till you use the tools we put in place.” Now that they’re in place, he said the state allotted to the county $83,000 more than expected, which he took as proof that the state was waiting for Kosciusko to act.
He said he had put together a fee scale for the county to use, but that “we were told at the time we couldn’t put it in the ordinance… We were advised to follow the state statue,” which sets a maximum wheel tax of $40. 
He noted the statue also allows counties to go back and reduce the charges, but council would have to do so before June for the new fees to be in effect by Jan. 1, 2016. County Council meets tonight at 7 p.m. in the courthouse.

(Story By The Times Union)