Council hears about potential wheel tax hike

Article by Amy McCarty of KPC Media

ALBION — The Noble County Council will hear more on a potential increase to the wheel tax and surcharge at a special meeting Jan. 16.

Zack Smith, county engineer, spoke to the council Tuesday about a possible rate increase.

“As far as long-term sustainability, the wheel tax and surcharge is the way to go,” Smith said.

He spoke to council previously on the matter in early 2017.

Drivers in the four-county area currently pay a minimum of $7.50 in surtax in Noble County and $10 in LaGrange County. Motorists might pay more than that if they have newer or more expensive vehicles, since both counties charge their surtaxes by a percentage calculation — 10 percent in Noble County and 2 percent in LaGrange County. Most drivers, however, pay the minimum.

Noble County has about 800 miles of road, and the current funding allows the county to work on about 80-100 miles each year, Smith said. The county’s registration taxes are bringing in about $700,000 per year, which is about 25 percent of the total money used for road maintenance, he said.

Smith had proposed the county adopting a flat-rate tax last year and setting it at $15 or $20 per vehicle, due to an unexpected shortfall in revenue due to the county’s current method of assessing the surtax based on vehicle age and value. Under the current system, most drivers end up paying the minimum fee, $7.50.

Due to an increase in road funding approved by state lawmakers last spring, county officials opted to pass on any changes to the local road tax in 2017.

If Noble County were to adopt the maximum wheel tax of $80, the county’s $700,000 share in the revenue would vault to about $2.3 million, Smith said. Raising the wheel tax to a flat rate of $25 would increase the revenue to nearly $1.5 million.

Smith said that buggies currently are charged a flat rate of $50 and bring in approximately $25,000 in revenue.

“We’re on the right path on upgrading infrastructure,” council Vice President Jerry Jansen said. “If the money runs out, that’s a big deal. This is serious stuff.”

The council will hear more on the matter on Jan. 16 at 4 p.m. Before a final decision is made, there will be public hearings, according to Smith, who said he believes a flat rate is the way to go.

“A flat fee is the better way to go,” he said. “A car is a car and does the same amount of damage (to the roadways).”

Council members also heard from Noble County Prosecutor Eric Blackman, who asked that money from the prosecutor’s Title IV-D Incentive Fund be used to pay bonuses as an incentive to employees from his department who reach specific criteria in their efforts to collect on those delinquent in child support payments.

General agreement from the council was that much work had been done to tweak job classification, salary and benefit packages for county employees and, at this time, the employees are doing well with employment packages. In an effort to remain fair, allowing bonuses for one department, when the others could not receive them, would not be fair.

After a lengthy back-and-forth, the council voted to discontinue the discussion.

In other business, the council:

• Voted on to install Denise Lemmon as council president and Jerry Jansen as vice president.

• Accepted the reappointment of Jeff Phillips to the Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals.

• Voted to retain the list of council committee and liaison assignments.

• Heard that the current population of the Noble County Jail is 116, with seven individuals on work release. The jail has seen a slight increase in the overall population for the year, according to Noble County Sheriff Doug Harp.

• Approved a 10-year tax abatement and resolution for B&J Medical for $3.5 million to be verified by March 31. The company plans to add approximately 16 jobs at its location on U.S. 6 west of Kendallville.