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Wheel tax helps with upgrades, maintenance

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Drivers have paid more than $17 million in a county tax on vehicle registrations during the past five years, which has paid to repave roads, patch potholes and redesign intersections.

The Johnson County Council reapproved the county wheel tax last year for another five years. Motorists pay the tax, which ranges from $15 to $40, when they register a vehicle or trailer.

Local officials said the wheel tax has helped pay for projects that either would have been delayed or not done at all. The taxes have helped street departments keep up on paving, patch potholes, pay for equipment and replace sidewalks and street signs.

The wheel tax also is the only option counties currently have to increase the amount of road funding local communities get, county council member Beth Boyce said.

The tax is collected every time someone registers a vehicle for the first time or renews their registration, with fees of $25 for cars, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, $15 for motorcycles and light trailers, and $40 for trucks, buses, motor homes and large trailers. The wheel tax finished its first five-year run at the end of 2012, collecting a total of $17.43 million.

The wheel tax was defeated in the Johnson County Council twice, in 2003 and 2005, before being approved for five years in 2007 in response to decreasing income from the state fuel tax due to vehicles with better gas mileage and drivers traveling less.

“A lot of us on the council at the time saw that it was a way to help us fund some of these projects and that if we were going to prioritize some of these projects like the east-west corridor, the wheel tax was the way to do it,” Boyce said.

Council members wanted to be able to review the use of the tax after five years and discuss other funding options. By 2012, no new options emerged and gas tax money continued to decline, leading to the council to reapprove the wheel tax, Boyce said.

The tax has helped pay for projects ranging from the $6 million widening of Whiteland Road to replacing street signs in Prince’s Lakes.

Money is divided among each local government based on how many miles of road each has. The county received an average of about $1.5 million per year, and Greenwood got the next largest chunk of about $1 million per year. Trafalgar received about $27,000 on average.

Johnson County received $7.86 million during five years and has used it to tackle some large projects, most recently widening Whiteland Road and adding a roundabout at the intersection with County Road 144. The county is committing $650,000 per year from the wheel tax to pay back a $6 million loan used for that project.

Other major projects tackled by the county with wheel tax money include the roundabout at Morgantown and Fairview roads and redesigning the intersection of State Road 135 and Golfview Drive.

Otherwise the wheel tax money is added to the county’s paving fund, which helps the highway department maintain roads, which can cost $10,000 per mile for chip-and-seal resurfacing or $80,000 for new asphalt, county highway director Luke Mastin said.

He said the wheel tax also enabled the county to do work on old concrete streets in subdivisions in the Center Grove area.

“It is expensive; and even within the last decade, we’ve seen significant cost increase, material cost increases, in those activities. If we didn’t have the wheel tax or a similar funding source, it would be very difficult to do capital improvement projects and pavement preservation projects,” Mastin said.

Franklin uses its wheel tax collections for resurfacing projects, since large-scale projects can cost around $1 million per mile. Those total road rebuilds, like the one currently taking place on North Main Street, are still too expensive to fund locally even with the wheel tax. But the additional money has helped Franklin with annual maintenance, street commissioner Ron Collins said.

“Without it, the streets would continue to deteriorate and get worse than what they are. It permits us to put Band-Aids on the road infrastructure that is in, at best, fair condition to poor condition,” Collins said.

Greenwood also puts most of the $1 million it gets annually toward repaving projects, allowing the city to put new asphalt down on an average of about 12 miles of road per year.

“We try to keep the streets up as best we can. With the revenue streams where they’re at and funding being cut, the bulk of our revenue comes from the tax you pay at the pump,” street superintendent Greg Owens said.

The city has found other uses for the money, such as spending $53,400 to repair the roof on the city salt shed in July.

Smaller communities also have spent wheel tax money on other expenses, such as buying equipment and replacing sidewalks, which otherwise would have been too costly.

The wheel tax has been a boon to Prince’s Lakes and has allowed the town to take on projects sooner, which otherwise may have been put on hold while officials saved up street funding over a few years, town council President Charlie Bourne said.

Prince’s Lakes was able to spend wheel tax to buy new reflective street signs costing about $5,000 to meet a federal deadline while still being able to do a few road repairs each year, Bourne said.

“We hated to put it in and hated to vote for it, but it’s one of those necessary evils,” he said.

New Whiteland used $70,000 in 2011 to purchase a road patcher, which allows the town’s street department to address minor potholes and cracks without having to hire a contractor. Without the wheel tax, the town would have had to take out a loan to purchase that piece of equipment, Clerk-Treasurer Maribeth Alspach said.

“That money was able to build for an 18- to 24-month period. And if that hadn’t happened, we would have had to finance that purchase. We didn’t have to dip into our local road and street money,” Alspach said.

Bargersville used its $73,000 share to repave Main Street and Old Plank Road. The project cost about $100,000 and would have been put off without the wheel tax funds, town council President Rowana Umbarger said.

In Edinburgh, the town replaced sidewalks and built new corners using wheel tax funds. The town completed all of them this year, where it might have only been able to do one or two per year without the wheel tax, town council President Ron Hoffman said.

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