Madison common council approves new $40 wheel tax

UPDATE (WKOW) — The Madison Common Council has approved a $40 vehicle registration fee, the highest in the state.

The fee has been on the table for a few months, and was projected to bring in almost $8 million in 2020. It would fund a variety of transportation projects in the city, which in turn would free up more than $3.5 million from property taxes. The city expects to use that money to fund general items like police and fire.

But it was clear Tuesday night that the fee was unpopular, both with constituents and the alders. Those from the public who spoke in support of the wheel tax admitted it was “regressive” but would fund much needed improvements to transportation.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway made a public plea to alders Tuesday night after several hours of discussion and three failed amendments to the fee, which included lowering it to $20.

“I need your support on this,” she said. “The city needs your support on this.”

She admitted that she was “uncomfortable” with the prospect of the fee as well, but that virtually all other options to raise revenue in the city are illegal.

She said there was a multi-million dollar budget shortfall before she drew up her budget, and that she had been warned there was a potential for layoffs.

“Many alders have suggested to me or to my staff things that we should explore,” she said. “We have run down each and every one of those ideas, and each and every one of them is not available to us as a municipality in Wisconsin.”

Three amendments were brought forward by alders that included a $35 fee, a $20 fee, and a 2026 sunset of it. All three were voted down after robust discussion about each.

In the end, alders voted 11 to 8 in favor of the fee.

District 13 Alder Keith Furman told his fellow council members that he would be voting in favor of it because it balanced the budget.

“This does allow us to have a balanced budget,” he said. “We need to pass a balanced budget, it is our responsibility to do that.”

District 1 Alder Barbara McKinney did not vote for the fee, and made the point repeatedly throughout the meeting that it would disproportionately affect the poorest in the city.

“No one was really happy about where we landed,” she said. “The most vulnerable population would be impacted, and also working class people who are just trying to make it.”

The mayor told alders that improved transportation would benefit all citizens in the city in the long run, and she wanted to make sure the city made that investment sooner rather than later.

She also encouraged alders to scrutinize this current budget with her, as well as future budgets, to find opportunities to save money.

McKinney said she wants constituents to know that they were heard, despite the end result.

“No one wanted that to happen, we tried so many ways to make it fit,” she said. “As a constituent, will they like it? No. But will they feel like they’re heard? I’m hoping that they feel that at least that they were heard.”

Rhodes-Conway apologized for giving them a “hard decision,” and apologized for the way the fee was presented and rolled out.

“I apologize if you feel like the process has been inadequate,” she said. “It probably has. I’m new at this, we’re figuring it out together.”

She said she welcomed feedback. McKinney and District 6 Alder Marshal Rummel said that the mayor could have been better at communicating with alders and constituents about the details surrounding the fee.

“When you’re talking about laying off people, that’s a different conversation, and that’s the conversation that the average person needed to be clear on and understand that, and this is why,” she said. “We did that in the end but it should have been upfront.”

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