WAVERLY – An informational meeting meant for the city council, turned into a public information session for the proposed joint public agency to impose a wheel tax.
The Aug. 14 meeting was originally scheduled to meet in the council chambers. But, the venue was changed to the Waverly Community Building to accommodate the large amount of citizens wishing to attend as well.
Lancaster County Engineer Pam Dingman and Lancaster County Commissioner Rick Vest spoke in front of the council and area residents to explain the need for the JPA and the accompanying wheel tax.
Dingman and Vest used a slideshow to illustrate the changes in rural road usage and the increase in traffic along county roads.
Dingman said that the current infrastructure in the county was not designed with modern vehicles in mind.
According to Dingman, there are 22 bridges closed in the county. Three of those are scheduled for permanent closure due to lack of funds.
If approved by Lancaster County, the City of Waverly and the City of Hickman, the JPA would have a board of seven members. Three would come from the county and two from Hickman and Waverly.
The JPA needs only two members, though. If one of the cities opted not to join, the JPA would still go ahead but with only the voting members from the entities that opt in.
For example, if Hickman and the county moved forward and Waverly opted out, the residents inside the city limits of Waverly would not be taxed. Though, those outside the city limits of any incorporated town in Lancaster County would be taxed.
The voting members of the JPA would decide what specific road projects in the county the wheel tax would fund.
According to Dingman, the JPA wheel tax would be different from the City of Lincoln’s wheel tax in a number of ways.
The pay schedule would be slightly different, if approved as proposed. Farm vehicles would be taxed at essentially half of what they would be taxed by the city of Lincoln.
The wheel tax in Lincoln is also different in that, when collected, it goes into a general fund. The JPA would collect the tax and put it towards specific projects to be chosen by the board of the JPA.
Members of the public asked whether there would be a public vote of the people on whether Waverly would opt in to the JPA.
Vest said that the County Commissioners would vote for the county but only each city’s elected officials would vote to enter the agreement.
However after the meeting, Mayor Mike Werner said he expected some dissension on the lack of a public referendum.
Werner told The News that in a government by representation that those elected “are granted the power to make easy, hard, and sometimes very difficult decisions.”
Also following the meeting, Councilman Bill Gerdes told The News that his main takeaway from the meeting was that previous county commissions have “kicked the road budget can down the road for the last 30 years and now we all face the problems of bad roads and closed bridges.”
Werner echoed those sentiments.
“The root cause of this problem is lack of proper monetary resources going to the engineering department of Lancaster County to address the growing needs,” he said.
Councilman Chad Neuhalfen said after the meeting that he appreciated what Dingman and Vest had to say but that he had not received a positive response on a wheel tax from his constituents.
During the meeting, Neuhalfen questioned Dingman whether there would be a sunset, or predetermined end, to the JPA or if the agreement would be permanent.
Dingman said there is not currently a sunset in the agreement but that could be put in if agreed upon by whatever entities end up forming the JPA.
Gerdes is proposing forming the JPA for 10 years with specific objectives. Then in year eight of the 10 year agreement, a popular referendum could be held to assess whether it should continue based on its merits or lack thereof.
Neuhalfen said that a sunset would make him more inclined to vote for the JPA, but that he has more questions he needs answered before considering it.
Werner said he disagrees with the idea of a predetermined end date but would go along with it if a majority of the entities involved thought it should be done.
Gerdes said that while taxes and fees are unpopular, so is driving on roads with potholes and around closed bridges.
“Something needs to be done and this seems so far like the best choice,” Gerdes said. “Continuing on the course of the past 30 years isn’t working.”
A public hearing before the city council regarding the JPA will be held Sept. 11.