Wheel Tax Dead on Arrival

A funding opportunity in the form of a wheel tax was presented to the County of Door’s Administrative Committee on Dec. 13, and to say it was not well received is probably an understatement.

“This makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” said Dave Lienau, chair of the committee and the Door County Board of Supervisors. “I don’t like it.”

A wheel tax is a fee charged whenever people renew their annual vehicle registration. Pam Busch, director of the County of Door’s public-transit department, introduced the concept for consideration as a new funding source. Depending on the amount charged – the scenarios she ran were for fees of $10-$25 per vehicle – the wheel tax would raise between $316,00 and $798,000 per year for Door County. That money could be used for highway maintenance and snow removal as well as for public-transit services, Busch said. 

Among the pluses cited during Busch’s presentation are that people who don’t pay property taxes – anyone who doesn’t own real estate – are still paying a share of the cost to keep up local roads.

“This is another tool in the toolbox,” said Ken Pabich, county administrator. “We could shift transportation off the tax levy, but it’s still a fee.”

As of August, 46 Wisconsin municipalities charged this fee, 13 of those counties, Busch said. Based on the committee’s response, Door County won’t be one of them.

“When I lived in Milwaukee and the wheel tax came about, it was very unpopular,” said committee member and county board supervisor Elizabeth Gauger, whose District 15 covers a ward in each of the towns of Egg Harbor and Sevastopol. She called an additional tax an “insult to injury” in her district.

“We got hit really hard with the Sevastopol school referendum,” she said. “Plus, a lot of municipalities are looking to add broadband, which is a big bill. Then to pile this on? Let’s get the cost for roads onto the tourists.”

Committee member and supervisor Dave Enigl also said he couldn’t “stand to put another tax on somebody. It’s just not right.”

Though no one in the room supported the tax, committee member and county board supervisor Dan Austad said they should put it before the full county board.

“I don’t think it should die here,” he said. “If it dies, it should die all together.”

That didn’t happen, and the concept was dropped.

“We’re just going to take our toolbox and put this back in, knowing it’s there,” Lienau said.

The City of Sturgeon Bay’s Finance Committee had also considered a wheel tax this year. That, too, died at the committee level.

Annual Bonuses for County Employees

The County of Door gave employees a $100 quarterly bonus in 2022. For 2023, the supervisors budgeted $600 per quarter for three quarters, for a total $1,800 for each employee, excluding elected officials.

“January is the transition, so there won’t be one for the first quarter,” Pabich said.

The “retention-related” cash bonus is not included in the employee’s base pay and wouldn’t carry forward into other years unless the supervisors agreed. 

“It comes back annually, and it may not even be this amount next year,” Pabich said.

Committee member and county board supervisor Todd Thayse said a bonus “becomes an entitlement after so many years, so we have to be cautious,” and who says it’s really retaining employees?

“I’m not necessarily saying I’m against this, but is it truly retention?” he asked.

“I agree with the comment that I’d like to see proof that this makes people stick around,” Enigl said.
“There’s no direct evidence,” Pabich said, that a bonus retains employees, but the county is “trying to keep up with inflation and maintain a competitive wage plan.” Employees were also hit with a 6% increase in health-insurance costs for 2023. 

“Eighteen hundred is roughly almost a 4% increase for a $50,000-per-year employee,” said Steve Wipperfurth, Door County finance director. “So in reality, they’re getting 7% instead of just the pay-plan raise of 3%. Inflation is 8%, so this gets them close to it. That’s just perspective.”

Thayse asked for comparables from other counties, though Pabich said those wouldn’t be “apples to apples.”

“We don’t want to be equal with them,” Pabich said. “Ours is a little bit higher.”

Thayse said moving from $100 to $600 per quarter was a “significant stretch,” and he wanted an end strategy. “Are we going to rely upon bonuses to get employees where they need to be, or wages? We can’t sustain both.”

Lienau, too, said he did not want supervisors to have to decide annually whether there would be a bonus and how much. Although he said he didn’t necessarily like the bonus idea, he was trying to square it.

“We’re in extraordinary times, but hopefully we’re not always going to be in extraordinary times,” he said.

Because the bonuses were included in the 2023 budget as approved by the full county board, the Administrative Committee has full authority to release them. The committee did not do that during the December meeting, opting to hold off on a decision until January and asking to see comparables from other counties. 

When the topic returns, committee members will also need to consider whether the union-represented employees will receive the bonus, Pabich said, given that those compensation packages were negotiated.

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