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Steuben County Council Gives Approval on First Reading of Wheel Tax
Tuesday Apr 18, 2017 4:22pm
Steuben Community Center’s Multipurpose Room • Angola, IN

By: Sheila McCrea

After a public hearing Tuesday morning and a lengthy first reading that followed, Steuben County Council members approved the first reading of two ordinances that will establish a local option highway user tax for Steuben County residents. One couldn't stand without the other. Both were cleared on 5-2 votes by the council.

The process to pass the ordinances started first with a public hearing in the Steuben Community Center’s Multipurpose Room with approximately 35 people in attendance, where roughly a dozen shared their opinion on LOHUT.

County LOHUT taxes will stay in the county. The motivation to enact LOHUT was to create a tax that would generate roughly $2.5 million annually to improve and maintain the county’s roads. Once approved, cities and towns in the county would also receive a share.

The public hearing started with a presentation by Jennifer Sharkey, Steuben County Highway Engineer. She shared that Steuben County has 640 total road miles to maintain.

Sharkey gave a detailed presentation on what funding could be generated if LOHUT were passed.

Council President Rick Shipe said at the beginning of the public forum that he "doesn't like taxes", but like many on the council he says he has "worked diligently to find another solution to pay for maintaining county roads and improving them". Shipe said that passing the LOHUT appears to be "the only solution" because it is not known what dollar amount, if any, the state will contribute.

While many residents who spoke understood opinions like Councilman Shipe and even supported moving forward with LOHUT, many spoke against the issue and didn't like having the maximum amount be the initial tax. Kenny Steele (Senior), a rural Orland resident and business owner said, “If you really cared about the people of the county you wouldn’t be putting the maximum tax on everybody". Some business owners like Steele felt the maximum would put heavy financial restraints on them and hurt business.

Following the public hearing, council members worked until almost 2 p.m. to find a workable common ground on the ordinances. Originally, and prior to the public hearing, the council had slated to tax the maximum amount allowed under law under the excise surtax, which is passenger vehicles, and the wheel tax, which is larger commercial vehicles and trailers.

After hearing public comments, Councilwoman Linda Hanson brought up the word "fairness", saying that the council needed to consider a lower amount. She didn't want the public to think they weren't heard.

Initially the amounts proposed was $50 per passenger vehicle and $80 for each commercial vehicles, buses, and trailers.

After the council made five separate votes on the two ordinances, the final measures passed. One motion died for a lack of a second. The first three votes failed 4-3 each time.

In the fifth attempt, the council approved Ordinance 899, the excise surtax, in an amended version that will charge people 20 percent of their state vehicle excise tax with a minimum of $25. The amended wheel tax, Ordinance 900, will charge a flat $80 per vehicle greater than 11,001 pounds and trailers with the exception of trailers 3,000 pounds and under, which will charged a $15 fee.

Changes to the ordinance, including the amount charged, can be changed by the Council through its third reading of the ordinances.

In the final vote of both ordinances, council members Shipe, Hansen, Dan Caruso, Ruth Beer and Ken Shelton voted yes while Jim Getz and Wil Howard voted no.

Both ordinances must pass in order for either tax to be collected. Everything will have to be passed and finalized by the council by June 30th, which could come as soon as their June 13th meeting.

If the tax gains final approval, it won’t be collected until 2018. Revenue generated from the tax won’t be available for use until 2019.

The council meets next on May 9th.

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