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County OKs plan to fix roads

Douglas County won’t go it alone when Superior Days delegates ask the Legislature to consider a new 0.5 percent sales tax to fix county roads.

The measure approved Thursday night by the Douglas County Board makes raising the sales tax to repair roads an issue the delegation will present to state legislators when delegates head to Madison for the annual lobbying event planned for Feb. 18-19.

With more than 330 miles of road to maintain and a total cost that exceeds $100 million to improve them, the board adopted a resolution that approves the concept. Now it’s up to legislators to decide if it happens.

Bayfield County also expressed interest in the tax, said Douglas County Administrator Andy Lisak.

Since Ashland and Iron counties are also represented in the annual lobbying effort, he said delegates will seek the option for all four counties.

The dedicated sales tax would raise about $3 million per year in Douglas, and spread part of the burden of paying for county highway projects to residents, visitors and tourists alike, Lisak wrote in a statement outlining the county’s problem in funding highway projects.

While the county has discussed a “wheels tax” on automobiles and trucks weighing less than 8,000 pounds, allowed by state law, the revenue raised would be insufficient to fund county highway projects and would place the burden squarely on the shoulders of Douglas County residents. Depending on whether the registration fee lands between $10 and $20, the county would only raise between $360,000 and $730,000 annually.

The idea for the dedicated sales tax stems from a January 2013 report released by the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, chaired by state Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. “Keep Wisconsin Moving — Smart Investments, Measurable Results” recommended legislation authorizing the local-option sales tax for transportation purposes in counties with populations of less than 100,000 people.

All four counties combined have a population of less than 82,000, with Douglas the largest at 44,149, according to 2012 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The sales tax proposal has already garnered support of the Chamber of Superior-Douglas County, according to Dave Minor, president and chief executive officer.

If approved by the Legislature, it would raise the sales tax from 5.5 percent to 6 percent, still less than Duluth’s 7.875 percent sales tax. The sales tax would sunset after six years unless reauthorized by referendum.

However, the counties can’t implement the new sales tax without approval from the Wisconsin Legislature.

The Executive Committee has previously approved the concept of borrowing $4 million in 2015 and $2 million annually through 2019 — a total of $12 million — for county highway projects. That borrowing would raise the property tax levy by 1.5 percent in 2016 and 2017, 1.6 percent in 2018 and 1.7 percent in 2019 and 2020.

A mandatory training session for Superior Days runs 5-7 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Yellowjacket Union at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.