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A La Crosse County committee approved a simplified road-funding referendum Friday morning, forwarding a two-question ballot question for the full La Crosse Count Board to consider on Thursday.

The proposed referendum approved by the county’s Executive Committee has a preamble that affirms the county’s commitment to pursuing a premier resort area tax of 0.5 percent on goods and services designated as tourism-related. This tax that was supported by 55 percent of the voters in an April 2017 advisory referendum.

To make the so-called tourism tax happen, though, the county has to get a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, followed by a binding referendum. Legislation was introduced during the last session, but the Republican legislative committee chairs didn’t hold committee hearings on the bills.

The new referendum question asks voters to choose between two options should the Legislature fail to act on the premier resort area tax: a $56 county vehicle registration fee, also called a wheel tax, or an increase in property taxes of about 15 percent.

The referendum question previously proposed asked voters to choose between the premier resort area tax, the wheel tax and the property tax, and the question was so long it might have forced a two-sided ballot. It was enough to make voters’ eyes glaze over, County Administrator Steve O’Malley said.

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Steve O'Malley mug

O’Malley

“The format of the ballot really changes how you think about this,” he said. Also, he added, “the more choices you have, the more risk there is that we would get nothing out of this.”

Board member Andrea Richmond agreed: “You need to keep this whole thing simple, or people aren’t even going to touch it.”

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Andrea Richmond mug

Richmond

She disagreed, however, that the county should continue to pursue the premier resort area tax, saying that voters didn’t understand what they were voting on in the April 2017 referendum.

Richmond, who is also a La Crosse Common Council member, objected to the wheel tax, saying La Crosse residents would get nothing out of the tax to improve city roads. She sought to add language to the referendum that would give La Crosse 25 percent of the proceeds from a wheel tax but got no support from other committee members.

In the end, Richmond was the sole vote against approving the road-funding referendum resolution.

The new draft of the referendum question initially included a third choice for voters: “Neglect the identified unmet highway needs and wait for action by the Governor and Legislature.”

Although board member Patrick Barlow supported offering the third choice, all other members voted to take that off the ballot.

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La Crosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson

Johnson

“This is an advisory referendum about taking care of our roads. ‘Let the roads go to hell’ is definitely not on this ballot,” said County Board Chairwoman Tara Johnson, who chairs the executive committee. “We are saying we intend to take care of our roads.”

Bill Feehan, a former county board member and a member of the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce subcommittee studying transportation solutions, argued at Wednesday’s executive committee meeting for a “none of the above” referendum option, counting on the state to increase aid to counties and municipalities. He was disappointed in the referendum choices approved Friday.

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Bill Feehan mug

Feehan

“I think the problem of the referendum is it’s a forced choice. It forces people into making a choice that is a false choice,” Feehan said. “I don’t like the solution. I think we can do better.”

The “reasonable course,” Feehan said, is to pursue an increase in local transportation funding aid from the state.

Ron Chamberlain, the county’s highway commissioner, estimates that even if the state returned transportation aid levels to the highest they’ve ever been, it would not even cover half of what is needed for the county to keep pace with its highway needs.

The county has been pushing for more state funding for transportation. In fact, the county board is expected to vote Thursday on a resolution pushing the state for a sustainable source of transportation funding. But county officials are skeptical that the state will do anything, which is why they are pursuing local solutions.

“The idea that the state Legislature and the governor are going to pursue any solution is hypothetical at best,” said board member Sharon Hampson. “There’s no will in Madison to do what needs to be done. The main answer is to raise taxes, and they think that’s a terrible thing to do.”


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Entertainment and county government reporter

Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

(13) comments

HubertHoffman-Onalaska

Read the wording. This is a "We are going to raise your taxes FOREVER! How would you like to pay us, option one or two?" Also notice it says no other options or your vote will not be counted. They don't want to count the "no tax increase" votes.

canman

Tara and the board made sure they got their 23 million plus new castle, and did so knowing full well about the condition of the roads and other expensive infrastructure needing repair. It’s time they all quit, the mindset of no limit on spending just proves malfeasance on their part.

random annoying bozo

it just goes to show that no matter how much money you give to government, they will find ways to ask for even more?

where does all that money go that government takes in?

Cassandra2

Czercock, you promised on July 10 that you'd leave these pages. You lied again.

Cassandra2

Bozo, if you want answers to your question, take part in your governance. Go to board meetings, run for office. Don't just sit around and b*tch.

awol2009

Gee, the. last referendum on the wheel tax proposal was $20. That vote came to a big NO from voters. Now they are proposing $56??!!?? Who are these wasteful idiots? Tara Johnson needs to go along with a few others on the County Board. Then the other proposal to raise property taxes 15%?? Are they nuts? I thinkk counties and state lawmakers should meet and form a consensus on how to fairly distribute the state gasoline taxes we pay. What is it, $.18 per gallon? We have one of the highest in the nation. It should be divided fairly by regions. I'm tired of our state highways (16 from Tomah to West Salem) being in worse shape than most county and township highways. There has to be a better way. Raise taxes/regisration fees on electric/hybrids vehicles and heavy trucks that contribute to wear and tear.

Rick Czeczok

One of the biggest problem with county roads is that over a one mile stretch they can be building over several different sub surfaces such as silt, sand, clay or swamp. To clear these all and make so that a solid bed can be laid, is just not cost effective. Ground heaves in our part of the world (winter and summer)and that's just nature fighting us. Pick out the really bad spots, dig them out and supply a good road bed and sub surface will help, but will never cure it all. Wish them luck and lots of ground surveys, really all that they can do. And let the pro's do it, not the county.

capedcrusader

Yep. Like the road in Holmen.

capedcrusader

I think Bill Feehan is right.

wakeup

Without a NO option, many will just skip the question. Why isn't there a charge by weight option? Why isn't there a prioritize repairs by use and return low use roads to gravel option? Many people live in rural areas because they prefer lower taxes. Then they expect and get others to pay extra to subsidize their chosen lifestyle - everything from schools and roads to mail delivery and utilities. Most rural residents are not farmers. In the case of many rural roads I think damage is caused by heavy vehicles like long haul delivery rigs, construction and farm equipment, trash haulers, industrial vehicles. What will their contributions be? I will skip this referendum and that will mean I choose none of the above.

Grand Dad's Bluff

Garbage trucks are major contributors to road wear in county. Make the haulers pay for their road use.

kingman10

Heavy trucks hauling form quarries are a big reason for road failure on the county level. When Mathy opens up another quarry it is usually on county or town roads, so maybe part of the solution is that company should help pay for the roads they depend on for their business. Same with milk haulers, garbage trucks, semis, and farm equipment. All have to contribute something to keep the roads in good shape so they can do business. The county could quit buying land building new outlying shops and use the money for roads. And they could make sure the roads they build are done right, and not have to pay to have them done over.

capedcrusader

Yep. Like the road in Holmen.

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