Wheel Tax and Go Pass—and Misinformation—Dominated County Board’s Budget Listening Session

Nov. 1, 2016
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Monday’s Halloween night public hearing on Milwaukee County’s 2017 budget was full of spooky myths and misinformation, especially regarding the $60 vehicle registration fee (AKA the wheel tax) as well as the Go Pass for the county’s seniors and disabled bus riders. 

Many of those who spoke “blamed” the board of supervisors for proposing the wheel tax—not so. That’s the handiwork of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who was cordially invited to but didn’t attend the meeting and therefore didn’t hear from the public about the impact of his budget on non-millionaires. 

Some other myths to clear up:

Myth: The board’s to blame for creating the $60 wheel tax. 

No (see above). The $60 wheel tax came from Abele. In fact, the finance committee passed an amendment yesterday raising the wheel tax $30 instead, which would push off some projects and require additional borrowing. $30 is an additional $2.50 per month per vehicle. 

Myth: The Go Pass is to blame for the $60 wheel tax. 

Not so. The Go Pass “costs” about $4.4 million annually. (I say it “costs” this because we don’t really know the financial impact of the pass.) The $60 wheel tax would raise $27 million next year and $32 million in 2018 and thereafter. So the wheel tax actually raises far more than what the county needs to support the Go Pass. 

Something else to think about: $4 million is what the county is paying toward the Bucks arena each year for 20 years. (See more on this below.) It’s also the amount of property taxes Abele wants to raise next year. 

Yes, Abele’s proposed budget includes the $60 wheel tax and the $4.2 million property tax increase. 

Myth: The board committed the county to $4 million a year to support an arena built by billionaires. 

False. Abele negotiated the Bucks arena agreement, which includes $80 million in county taxpayer support. The Legislature passed the deal—the board did not. 

Myth: The county wouldn’t have to raise taxes or add the wheel tax if they hadn’t given away the Park East land for $1 to a bunch of billionaires. 

See above. Abele did this without the board’s involvement. In fact, he got an amendment slipped into the state budget at the last minute that gave him the power to sell off non-park land with just one other signature. That is now causing headaches for the Estabrook Dam. Abele is pushing for rezoning the parcel with the land so that it isn’t zoned as parkland. Think about this: If this goes through Abele can get priceless parkland rezoned and sell it off with the signature of just one other person. Terrible. 

Myth: The board wasted money on the “trolley” that nobody wants. 

Yes, people believe that the county board voted for the Milwaukee streetcar. Wrong. The streetcar is purely a City of Milwaukee project. 

Myth: People with cars shouldn’t have to pay for a system that they don’t use. 

First, everyone, including car drivers, benefits from a functioning bus system so it makes sense for everyone to support it. Second, bus riders are very much paying for the service. In fact, on top of the $60 wheel tax and the $4.2 million property tax hike, Abele’s budget includes higher fares for many bus riders who do not use the Go Pass. 

Abele’s budget includes increases for adult passes: $2 increase for a 7-day pass ($104 increase annually), a $3 increase for a 7-day premium pass ($156 increase annually), an $8 increase for a 31-day adult pass ($96 increase annually) and an $11 increase for a 31-day premium pass ($132 increase annually). 

Then, too, Go Pass users will need to pay for being in the program. Abele wants $5 to register for the pass and 25 cents per ride. Supervisor Michael Mayo’s amendment calls for $5 fee for the pass (good for three years) and $1 day-pass fare. So there will be “no more free rides,” even if you are homeless and have no income and need to ride the bus. 

What else? 

There was a strong contingent of disc golfers, who want their fees to go back into the program, which makes sense. 

A lot of support for raising the minimum wage to $15. Again, there seemed to be some confusion about this. The county wants to raise the wages of its workers to $15—not make $15 the minimum wage within Milwaukee County. 

Lastly, I’m still shaking my head over the little old lady who called for blowing up the Estabrook Dam. This lady seemed to delight in insulting the board and spewing hate. She was certainly exulting in it when she took her seat after her tirade. She was totally energized by her hatred. 

Look—we can disagree about the dam. We can disagree about taxes and policy. But that kind of spite and hate has no place in a public forum. Seriously. Maybe that's acceptable behavior at a Trump rally, but it doesn't go over well during a normal public hearing on serious subjects.

The board hasn’t taken a final vote on the 2017 budget yet. Then Abele gets a chance to veto anything—with a Vanna White veto, in fact, allowing him to delete individual letters and numbers to create new words and sums. If there are vetoes, the board will meet to override or sustain them. 

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