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St. Louis County Board passes up vehicle tax

FLOODWOOD -- More than half of Minnesota's 87 counties will be charging their drivers an extra $10 per vehicle each year to pay for road repairs, but not St. Louis County.

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(2012 file / News Tribune)

FLOODWOOD -- More than half of Minnesota's 87 counties will be charging their drivers an extra $10 per vehicle each year to pay for road repairs, but not St. Louis County.

The County Board voted 6-0 Tuesday for a resolution opposing a $10-per-car "wheelage tax" that would have pumped an extra $1.5 million into road construction each year.

The wheelage tax was approved by the 2013 Minnesota Legislature after pressure by counties in need of more money to repair local roads, but each county board must vote to opt in.

St. Louis is one of the few large metropolitan counties to oppose a wheelage fee. Hennepin, Ramsey, Stearns and Olmsted counties all have approved the fee in recent days, among at least 46 counties that have jumped on board, said Julie Ring of the Association of Minnesota Counties.

In Northeastern Minnesota, Itasca and Pine counties approved a wheelage fee on their drivers. But Cook, Lake, Carlton and Aitkin will not have the fee -- at least not this year. Counties can revisit the new tax each year before Aug. 1. The new tax, where approved, will be charged starting in 2014 when vehicle owners renew their license tabs.

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St. Louis County commissioners appeared divided 4-2 against the tax, with the majority saying drivers already are being nickeled and dimed by gas taxes, license fees and other taxes. After several unusual parliamentary moves, however, the final vote ended up 6-0 against the new fee.

"I heard from no constituent who was supportive of a wheelage tax ... and about 100 who were not supportive," Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely said. Forsman said he supports the concept of more money for county roads but that there was no built-in guarantee that politicians wouldn't simply cut other highway funding and move the money to other causes.

"I don't trust the state of Minnesota," he said.

Alice Rosenholm of Floodwood testified at Tuesday's meeting that she and her husband have seven older vehicles, including four old pickups that don't see many highway miles.

"It unfairly affects those of us who have multiple passenger vehicles," she said.

Commissioner Pete Stauber said the $10 fee would fall hardest on older, middle-class residents and that the county can continue to ramp up its road improvement effort using existing money.

The wheelage tax, where approved, must be dedicated to highway work and will be aimed at local roads and bridges that receive little or no state or federal highway money. St. Louis County highway officials estimated it would have helped rebuild about 10 miles of roadway each year.

Most funding for local roads has come off the general property tax, said Commissioner Frank Jewell of Duluth, a supporter of the wheelage tax, "and I think the wheelage tax is far less regressive than the property tax."

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Jewell and Commissioner Steve Raukar of Hibbing said the wheelage tax would help make up for declining gas tax revenue as drivers move to vehicles with better gas mileage and drive fewer miles.

"The roads aren't going to fix themselves. It takes money to fix roads and bridges," Raukar said, noting bad roads are nearly always at the top of the list of constituent complaints.

Until now, only Twin Cities metro counties had the authority to levy a $5 wheelage tax. Only Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington counties actually have charged their drivers in recent years. Anoka County recently rescinded its wheelage tax.

The wheelage tax is paid based on where the vehicle is ordinarily stored or parked during non-business hours or when not in use. The tax is applied to most cars and trucks but not motorcycles, mopeds, trailers, boat trailers, collector cars or ATVs.

Related Topics: TRANSPORTATION
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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