Brother, can you spare a dime?

Written by Jeff Johnson on June 29, 2010. Posted in General

Is Hennepin County so broke it needs a new tax to fund basic road maintenance?

Last year, the Hennepin County Board (minus the votes of Commissioner Randy Johnson and me) voted to increase the general property tax levy by 4.95%. At the same time, the board (minus only my vote) also increased the county regional railroad authority levy by 114% and the county housing authority levy by 176%. 

It’s only fair to note that county spending actually decreased between 2009 and 2010, but not enough to avoid tax increases.

As we begin our discussions about the county’s 2011 budget, the safe bet would be that all three levies will increase again. But despite these increases, we are also considering a new source of revenue for the county (on top of the three major levies, the ballpark tax, the transit tax, the tax on garbage collection, etc.) known as a “wheelage tax.”

State law allows counties to levy a wheelage tax upon its citizens of up to $5 per vehicle annually. According to county estimates, a wheelage tax in Hennepin County would raise approximately $4 million per year. Pursuant to state law, that $4 million could only be spent on roads and bridges.

The new wheelage tax was raised as a potential option for the county at a recent meeting during which the county board discussed 2011 funding for county roads. The county’s transportation department suggested at this meeting that an additional $10 million in 2011 would be needed (over the $30 million already budgeted by the county for roads) to essentially keep our county roads in good repair (as we have been falling behind in this category over the past decade). Essentially, this additional $10 million would go towards pavement replacement, road maintenance and drainage system upgrades.

Several of my colleagues on the board suggested that it would be all but impossible to find an additional $10 million for roads within our $1.6 billion budget (which would require reallocating just over ½ of 1%). Hence, the argument for a new tax.

Providing safe and adequate roads and bridges for our citizens is a basic, fundamental job of county government (along with keeping the public safe and providing a social safety net to the most vulnerable people in the county). I recognize that I sound like a broken record, but it’s time for this county board to SET PRIORITIES and adequately fund what is most important rather than funding everything under the sun and then arguing that we’re too broke to meet our basic obligations.

We do not need yet another tax on Hennepin County residents – we need to focus, set priorities and adequately fund what’s important.

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