A clearer accountability for spending and possible new sources of revenue were discussed last week by the Vilas County Finance and Budget Committee.
Two of the ideas discussed could be considered the more controversial – a possible county wheel tax and paying county supervisors a monthly salary instead of per diem for conducting county business.
The third item called for setting up separate budgets for county committees instead of spending for each committee coming out of the county board’s budget.
No action was taken on any of the items, but supervisors kicked “the proverbial tires” on the ideas.
“We’re going to take another look at this and give it serious consideration,” Supervisor and Committee Chairman Chris Mayer said. “We have to look at all the options possible to help raise revenue and reduce expenses.”
A “wheel tax” is a dollar amount paid for the number of wheels on a vehicle which would be added to a vehicle’s cost for registration every year.
According to Wisconsin law, the state would collect the funds and distribute them to the county for a minimal charge.
Some committee members expressed some support for the idea, while others were against.
“Another point I like about this possibility is that any money collected through a wheel tax can only be spent on transportation-related expenses or projects,” Mayer said. “We’ve been taking money out of the highway department budget over the last several years. If we did this we’d have a way of repairing and keeping up our highways and the money could not be taken for other purposes.”
The committee requested more information as to where the funds would end up and how much money would be potentially collected in a year’s time.
“I can’t believe that when someone is paying $80 or $90 already to register their vehicle that an additional $10 would be a big burden,” Mayer said.
Mayer said the county needs to do more research on how many vehicles would be subject to the tax in Vilas County if it were given final approval.
“We need to get a number of questions answered yet,” Mayer said. “We need to find out whether non-native Americans who register their vehicles through the tribe could be subject to the tax or if they live within the reservation. Answering that and other questions can help us try to determine how much revenue a wheel tax could generate.”
Mayer said that even if the wheel tax only generated about $250,000 a year that amount of money could help pay for the repair and upkeep of county roads and highways.
According to the latest information provided by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation website, only the cities of Beloit, Janesville, Mayville and Milwaukee and St. Croix County currently charge a wheel tax.
Per diem versus salary
Information was handed out by county finance manager Jason Hilger showing what other counties do as far as supervisors receiving a salary or being paid per diem.
The information Hilger presented was gathered from 31 counties by the finance manager from another county in Wisconsin.
Some counties pay a per diem per meeting, while others paid a monthly salary. The counties also varied widely in the number of supervisors they had and the number of committees for each county board.
Some said the idea would be difficult to institute because some county supervisors are involved in more committees, some of those committees meet more often than others and some supervisors spend more time on county-related business.
The committee agreed to take another look at the idea once a possible consolidation or reorganization of county committees is completed. Then they could discuss the work loads by each supervisor and if a salary were warranted instead of the per diem.
“We’ve been told that we need to cut down expenses for the county board as well so we need to look at whether paying a salary instead of per diem would do that and cut enough expenses to make it a viable idea,” Mayer said. “If the board really wants to cut expenses I know I can do it, but they have to come up with the idea of how we do it?”
The change to salary could save the county some money instead of paying per diem. No vote was taken nor was any final decision made.
Individual committee budgets
There is just one budget for the entire county board. When committee members attend seminars and incur expenses, those costs are paid for from the board’s budget.
Some supervisors say this system is problematic because it leaves no way for tracking which committees might be spending more and which committees may be better and keeping expenses down. The finance committee, in addition to other county officials, would like to keep better track of these expenditures.
“Members of the board want to cut expenses so we need to know exactly who is spending what on attending conferences and conventions,” Mayer said. “By having each committee have its own individual budget we can keep a much closer focus and oversight on how much they are spending at what it is for. Spending $10,000 for attending the state county boards convention just doesn’t make sense and then we never really hear back from many of them as to what they learned or accomplished there.
“We’ll be able to know who’s paying who for what and can then take action regarding it,” Mayer said.
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at email@example.com.