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County leaders consider sales, wheelage taxes for increased highway funding

More money is needed for highway maintenance in Otter Tail County, and officials are considering new taxes as one way of getting it.

At the July 16 county board meeting, commissioners discussed two possible options for new roadway funding in the future – a half-cent sales tax, which would raise approximately $4.2 million on an annual basis; and a wheelage tax, which would add $10 per license tab and raise about $500,000 annually.

The sales tax option would provide funding for specific highway capital projects. Funding from the wheelage option would go toward roads and bridges.

Commissioners are hoping to garner public support for the new revenues by educating and informing residents of the county’s financial need.

According to County Engineer Rick West, who spoke at the meeting, it costs about $250,000 to overlay one mile of highway. Totally rebuilding that mile would cost around $650,000.

With 1,052 miles of highway and 142 bridges in the county, the total annual bill for maintenance adds up fast. The $6.5 million that the county spends on its roadways every year falls short of keeping up with needed projects around the county, which has more land area than the state of Rhode Island.

 “It’s our duty to go out and inform and educate county residents about our highway projects, and why they are necessary,” said West. “We need to demonstrate the financial need. We as a county can’t wait too long for overlays, and band aid approaches don’t work.”

Board Chairman Doug Huebsch, of Perham, said it’s best to present to the public a long-term plan for maintaining county highways, a sentiment that was shared by other board members.

Commissioner Wayne Johnson, of Pelican Rapids, said he’s confident county residents will support needed highway projects.

“Most people don’t want to go back to the days of gravel roads,” he said. “It’s my belief that, when county residents fully understand what’s at stake, they will support a sales tax.”

Commissioner John Lindquist, of Dalton, said a wheelage tax alone, raising $500,000 annually, would not be enough to maintain all the roadways throughout the county. And on a long-term basis, said West, even the $4.2 million raised annually from a half-cent sales tax would not be enough to meet all roadway requirements.

Officials agreed that the first thing to do is educate and inform county residents. Any final decisions about wheel-age or sales tax implementations will come after that.

Tom Hintgen, Otter Tail County Correspondent