Town Revokes Transportation Utility Ordinance

The Town of Gibraltar revoked its transportation-utility ordinance, effective immediately, during a 3-2 vote at a Jan. 3 town board meeting.

Created in June 2022, the transportation utility made the town an annual $400,000 for roads, charging all properties a fee for road use, including properties like nonprofit organizations that are typically exempt from taxes or fees. Before implementing the transportation utility, the town budgeted about $350,000 annually to pay for roads.

But the same month the town created a transportation utility, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the transportation utility of Outagamie County’s Town of Buchanan, ruling it unlawful and causing Gibraltar to revisit their own policy. Their legal counsel told them they could retain the utility, but board chairman Steve Sohns said, when asked why Gibraltar was so quick to revoke it, that he thought it would be a better idea for the town to play it safe.

“You’re at risk of a lawsuit,” Sohns said. “You’re at risk of losing your insurance company. There’s a lot of reasons why you’re cautious about something like this.”

Getting rid of the utility fee means the town won’t receive the annual $400,000 it brings in. So the town asked taxpayers to increase the property-tax levy into perpetuity by the same amount during a public hearing in November, but electors voted against the increase with a 71-37 vote.

The board discussed the utility once more during a Dec. 6 meeting before voting on the matter during its January meeting. Sohns and supervisors Tom Birmingham and Vinni Chomeau voted to revoke the ordinance, while supervisors John Selenica and Jayson Merkel voted to keep it.

During an approximate 30-minute discussion, Selenica objected to rescinding the transportation utility on the grounds that borrowing the money needed annually for roads – the alternative to a property-tax levy increase or a transportation-utility fee – would increase taxes, an outcome taxpayers evidently wanted to avoid as they voted down the town’s proposed property-tax levy increase. But Birmingham said electors had been informed of this. 

“It was pointed out by our administrator [Travis Thyssen] at the hearing [in November] to the voters that, failing this request for a levy-limit override, the board has the authority to, and would have to, borrow money,” Birmingham said.

Adding to Selenica’s point, Chomeau said that borrowing money for road projects, like the town’s ongoing Hill Street/Bluff Lane project, comes with an interest-rate cost. According to Thyssen, interest rates for borrowing are higher than usual at 6.5-7%. 

“I don’t feel great about having people pay that much interest on something we can do for less money,” Chomeau said. “I know it can be spread out over time, but if you’re still paying that interest over 20 years, you’re going to spend twice as much as you want to.” 

Birmingham responded that though the town would be paying more, it would be doing so very gradually, making the increase less of a hit to taxpayers.

According to Sohns, talks on how the town will move forward are far from over.

“This is not the end of the story for this,” Sohns said. “We can have this discussion at the budget meeting next year.”