Kosciusko County Council fails to move forward with wheel tax amendment

(Carli Luca / News Now Warsaw)

Trailers kept the Kosciusko County Council from moving forward Thursday on amending the county’s wheel tax.

On the first vote on a motion to amend the wheel tax, the council’s vote has to be unanimous. A second vote on the same motion at another meeting only requires a majority council vote. But both motions presented at Thursday’s meeting failed to garner all seven councilmen’s support so a special council meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. July 23.

If any changes to the wheel tax are to take effect Jan. 1, the council has until Sept. 1 to approve them.

The council’s wheel tax committee first presented its recommendation for changes at the May council meeting. A public hearing was held on the recommendation in June. The committee has continued to meet over the last several months on the matter.

Doug Heinisch, one of three councilmen on the committee, said “in the five years since the council enacted the wheel tax, it has refrained from making any adjustments in an effort to understand the impact of the revenues gained as well as to determine the ability to effectively utilize these funds.”

Over the past two years, the county has seen significant increases in material and labor costs that will increase the costs to maintain and improve the condition of county roads. It is because of this “increased burden” that the committee recommended increasing certain tax rates to raise additional revenues needed to respond to rising costs.

The committee recommended changes, effective Jan. 1,  to raise additional revenue. To summarize, Heinisch said the committee recommended the tax for trucks 7-11,000 pounds and automobiles increase from $25 to $35; farm semi tractors, farm semi trailers, farm trucks, other buses, recovery vehicles, semi tractors, semi trailers, special machinery and trucks 16-78,000 pounds be increased from $40 to $60.

In an effort to “better match” the charges for vehicles with their respective impact on the roads, the following vehicles’ taxes would be reduced: trailers 3-7,000 pounds, $35 to $25; and snowmobiles, RVs and off-road vehicles, from $40 to $25.

Heinisch said, “Those were a list of what’s going up and what’s going down. If you didn’t hear something you were looking for, it’s because the guidelines for those aren’t changing, such as motorcycles. … If you didn’t hear it, it’s because no change is planned.”

It was later noted that historic vehicles also would be $25. A historic vehicle is 25 years or older and the state regulates how many miles a year a historic vehicle may be driven.

There was one area where Heinisch said the committee could not reach consensus. This was regarding trailers and farm trailers greater than 7,000 pounds. The current rate is $40 and an increase to $60 per year was proposed but not agreed upon by the committee. Councilwoman Joni Truex was a committee member not in favor of the increase, but Councilman Mike Long was.

Long said the most comments the council had received were about the Amish community paying their fair share of taxes to improve the county roads. On Tuesday, the county commissioners approved raising the annual horse-drawn buggy fee from $35 to $100.

“When we were thinking of recommending the (buggy) increase to the commissioners, we were looking at increasing those trailers at that time. The commissioners followed through, raised the ordinance to $100, which generates additional income; but at the same time we’re talking about now giving that back. That increase recommended to the commissioners was part of the whole package, so I feel like we’re taking a step backward” if the 7,000-pound trailer rate isn’t increased, Long said.

He said if there’s any criticism of the council, it’s that it shouldn’t had waited five years to review the wheel tax. The last part of the committee’s recommendation Thursday was that the rates be maintained for a minimum of two years. The committee will next formally look at any changes in 2021, which could take effect in 2022.

Truex said she was opposed to the trailer increase because farmers spoke out about the negative impact it would have on them.

Heinisch made a motion to approve the recommendation, with the explanation that trailers and farm trailers over 7,000 pounds would stay at $40 and not be increased, and that historical vehicles would be $25.

The council discussed the different trailers and there was some confusion over which trailers were included and which weren’t. There also was concern about treating all trailers equally.

Truex seconded Heinisch’s motion, but it failed 2-5 with only Heinisch and Truex voting in favor of it.

Long then made a motion to treat all trailers the same above 7,000 pounds and raise their wheel tax from $40 to $60, and include historic vehicles at $25. He said it could be reevaluated in two years. Councilman Ernie Wiggins provided the second, but because it only received five of the seven required votes on first reading, it failed.

Without a unanimous vote for either motion, the special meeting was scheduled for July 23.