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Nobles, Cottonwood and Jackson counties approve wheelage tax

WORTHINGTON -- Nobles County commissioners on Tuesday voted 3-2 to implement a wheelage tax that could generate approximately $204,820 in additional funds for transportation projects in 2014.

The tax was offered as an option to counties by the Minnesota Legislature this session to raise added revenue for road projects. Counties who choose to implement the tax will collect an additional $10 for each registered vehicle, with exceptions for motorcycles, mopeds, recreational vehicles, trailers, street rods, classic or collector cars, state-owned vehicles and tax-exempt vehicles.

The so-called user fee, had it been enacted by all counties statewide, could have generated approximately $46.8 million in its first year.

Nobles County Board Chair Bob Demuth Jr. said that as of last Thursday, just 27 counties had opted to implement the tax. Many counties had been expected to take up the option during board meetings on Tuesday.

"These are funds that we would have local control over," Demuth said. "The money goes into the highway department fund, to be used for any transportation-related costs."

Seeking input from fellow commissioners, Demuth asked each one to weigh in on the issue.

Commissioner Matt Widboom said that with the levy limits placed on counties by the state, the legislature "took away the tools" counties have. However, Nobles County also chose not to increase transportation funding accordingly for the past 30 years.

"For me, it's finally an opportunity to play catch-up," Widboom said. "I don't support taxing and taxing, but what other options do we have?"

Commissioner Don Linssen said he had a problem "doing the legislature's work for them," citing the state's failure to increase the gas tax since 1996.

"You drive the roads in Greater Minnesota, you know we're in desperate need of repair," Linssen said. "I guess I don't want to do the legislature's work for them."

While Demuth said he felt counties were handcuffed by levy limits, he thought the wheelage tax was an opportunity to repair some of Nobles County's roads and bridges. Commissioner Gene Metz agreed.

"This is a tax that basically affects the users," Metz said. "We have a lot of roads that need work and are not subject to any return from the gas tax.

"Roads, bridges and safety are core responsibilities of the county, and in that regard, I'm in favor of it," he added.

Commissioner Marv Zylstra said he's received a number of comments from citizens, both in support of and opposition to the wheelage tax. As the senior member on the county board, he also responded to Widboom's comment about not designating money for roads and bridges during the past 30 years.

"As a board, we have increased funding for roads and bridges -- maybe we haven't been aggressive enough," Zylstra said.

Though admitting he was still "a little bit" divided on the issue, Zylstra said he wasn't particularly in favor of the wheelage tax.

In the end, Metz, Demuth and Widboom gave support for the wheelage tax, with Zylstra and Linssen voting in opposition. With the 3-2 vote in favor, Nobles County will alert the state regarding its choice to implement the tax.

The wheelage tax will take effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Following is how neighboring counties have addressed the wheelage tax:

* Rock County commissioners did not take action on the optional wheelage tax, deciding that the tax "wasn't anything they were interesting in pursuing," said Kyle Oldre, county administrator.

The commissioners discussed the new tax option as soon as it was offered by the state, but Oldre said they didn't discuss it at length.

"It didn't appeal to the board," he added. "I'm not sure we even took formal action on it."

The wheelage tax was estimated to generate $93,880 in 2014 for Rock County.

* Jackson County commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday morning to approve the wheelage tax, which is estimated to generate $108,470.

"They approved it to provide additional funding for transportation projects and road projects," County Coordinator Janice Fransen said. "This funding can be used in a variety of areas, especially in country roads, and will address some of the needs that maybe aren't being met with the funding we have today."

* Murray County commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday morning against implementing the wheelage tax. If passed, the tax would have generated an estimated $101,770 for the county.

"It's another tax the legislature is making us put on the people," Commissioner John Giese said.

Commissioner Robert Moline suggested the group vote against the tax and revisit the issue next year -- a motion approved by all the commissioners except Dave Thiner.

* Cottonwood County commissioners approved the wheelage tax, which will generate an estimated $122,670 for the county, on July 2. The tax was passed unanimously by the commissioners.

* Pipestone County commissioners discussed the wheelage tax, which could have generated an estimated $106,680, at their regular July 2 meeting. They decided to not take formal action to proceed with the measure.

"There was a feeling among some board members that the state has provided this as an option for counties to help fund transportation, but yet we are really supposed to be funding transportation in a partnership way with the state," County Administrator Sharon Hanson said. "This shifts it more to the county rather than a shared responsibility, and that was a concern among our board members -- shifting the burden upon us when historically, since the beginning of major road construction, this has been something that the state and county have done together."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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