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Editorial - Wheelage tax is painful but necessary

No one likes having to pay another tax. Things are hard enough out there.

But Douglas County's decision to enact a $10 wheelage tax that will be added on to license tab fees is a good one.

The money is needed to fix local roads and bridges that have been neglected for too long. Locally, the tax is estimated to bring in about $360,000 next year and will stay right here in Douglas County.

Don't blame local officials for the road problem. State funding for roads has been flat while the cost of materials, especially petroleum-based products like asphalt, are on the rise. In 2003, the cost of putting an overlay of asphalt on an existing highway was about $73,000 per mile. Today, it's around $171,000 per mile.

That's one reason why, so far, at least 27 other counties throughout the state are enacting wheelage taxes. To clear up some confusion we've been hearing: The counties that enact the tax will not receive less state highway aid; it does not affect the distribution formula.

Counties have other options for getting more money for road repairs but they, too, come with some pain. They could raise property taxes, which would impact everyone, even those who don't have a vehicle, and we all know how fed up taxpayers are with property taxes in the last few years. A state-mandated cap on how much counties can levy also hamstrings that idea.

Another option, imposing a retail sales tax increase of a half-cent per dollar, also has drawbacks. Businesses worry that it will impact their sales; it would be limited to a specific project; and it makes more sense to tax those who are actually using the roads.

We know that the Douglas County commissioners will take some heat for their 4-1 vote (Jim Stratton was opposed). But they were placed in a no-win situation.

Two comments on the newspaper's Facebook page hit the nail on the head:

"It took courage to pass this very unpopular tax, but our roads, highways and bridges are in serious need of repair and need to be rebuilt. A partial user tax like this makes sense. It is impossible to draft a totally fair tax program," said former mayor Dan Ness.

Ruth Obert noted, "We need to pay for good roads and this is a good way to do it. If we want to live well we need to pay for public services."

The wheelage tax, which won't apply to motorcycles, mopeds, trailers, semitrailers and collector vehicles, will create a much-needed stable source of local funding for local roads and bridges now and into the future. Think of it as a modest investment that will pay dividends down the road.