By Emily Bialkowski
Be prepared to fork over $10 more each year for every vehicle you own now that Houston County has enacted a wheelage tax.
The wheelage tax has existed in the five metro counties for some time, and this year the state Legislature agreed to allow all counties to collect the fee if desired. A public hearing on the issue July 16 yielded one dissenting public comment and one dissenting board vote.
“The reason I’m here is the fact that taxes have gone up 80 percent. I have a few properties in Houston County and some in Arizona – three are on golf courses – and the taxes are higher here, which is ridiculous,” J.A. Twaiten said.
Commissioner Justin Zmyewski agreed with Twaiten and said, “I’m very much against raising taxes any way. My biggest point is I’ve always preached smart fiscal responsibility, and if we did that, I don’t think it would be as big of an issue. It’s just another way of taxing the people when we haven’t been spending the money smartly to this point.”
But other commissioners said the money is sorely needed to improve the conditions at the highway department without hurting real estate taxes.
“I don’t like any taxes, but I’m in favor of this rather than raising property taxes,” Schuldt said, adding, “I don’t think we spend money foolishly. Everything just simply costs more, and I think that’s the biggest reason our taxes have gone up.”
“I think everyone here is committed to being fiscally responsible,” Commissioner Judy Storlie added.
The policy taxes all vehicles licensed in the county at $10 apiece. Motorcycles, mopeds, trailers, semitrailers and collector vehicles are not subject to the tax.
In Houston County it is estimated 19,800 vehicles will be subject to the tax, which will generate $198,000. The tax will be included on vehicle registration renewal statements.
The item passed with Zmyewski being the only nay vote.
The board could elect to end the wheelage tax in the future if it wished to do so.
Typically disliked by townships but not so controversial for the county, a land preservation purchase was approved by the board.
Chad Bloom, representing Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, said the 76 acres will be purchased from the Whalen family of Jefferson Township and be handed over to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for wildlife preservation.
“This is truly a natural resource treasure,” Bloom said, “and will allow for conservation along Winnebago Creek and hopefully enhance public access.”
Paul Whalen said his family has occupied 215 acres along Winnebago Creek for 120 years and that his dad was heavily involved in wildlife preservation. He said it would be a great thing for many people to enjoy what his family has for so long. He also mentioned that in 2012 he paid $2,700 in taxes for the whole 215 acres. In 2013 that number jumped to $6,000 without any improvements.
Once land is acquired by the DNR, taxes cease to paid on it. A “payment in lieu of taxes” is provided to the county by the DNR at $22.50 per acre. Townships become the unfortunate loser of that deal because their cut is smaller than if a taxpayer owned the land.
The formula for payments in lieu of taxes is created at the state level, so the board really has no say in the matter. The request received a unanimous nod.
In other business the county board:
• Signed the 2013 Federal Aviation Administration airport terms and conditions for accepting airport improvement grants.
• Approved the provider contract for Clara House customized living facility in La Crescent.
• Hired John Dollar as the automated systems manager/custodian effective Aug. 1.
• Entertained an update on a grant application for the historical courthouse building. The grant was submitted July 12 for $10,000.
• Received six letters asking for term limits on the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission.