The Commissioners of Wayne County, Indiana are currently evaluating whether or not to institute a wheel tax (formally known as a "Local Option Highway User Tax"), as allowed for by Indiana's General Assembly since 1980. It would charge an annual fee to residents registering vehicles in the County, $25 for cars and other small vehicles, $40 for large trucks, RVs, buses, etc. A few thoughts on this proposal and how we got here:
First, the tax is being presented by the Commissioners as a suddenly urgent need for the area, "act before it's too late," they say. I find this characterization troubling given that one of the fundamental truths of life is that roads will deteriorate over time and will require money be spent on them if we want to keep them fixed up. If our ability to maintain infrastructure comes down to whether or not we can urgently get the public to approve additional taxation once in a while, then we're doing it wrong. Where was the long-term planning and well-thought-out discussion that would give the community time to react to this significant problem in our county and explore alternatives?
Second, citizens want to believe that public officials are acting with integrity and consistency when it comes to being good stewards of existing tax dollars. It's truly cringe-worthy that the County Commissioner who has advanced the proposal for this tax, Ken Paust, stated in no uncertain terms during his campaign for election that he would not advocate for any new taxes if elected. From his recent interview in the Palladium-Item:
"That was the whole platform for my campaign (last year) -- no more taxes," Paust said.
We know, we know - circumstances change, the economy didn't recover as fast as we thought it would, yada yada - but...REALLY? I know Ken Paust means well, but couldn't you find someone else to be the spokesperson for this cause? From a taxpayer and voter perspective, this reversal on Paust's part just reinforces the all-too-prevalent idea that political candidates can't be trusted in their commitments and that public officials are out of touch with what their citizens want.
Third, the wheel tax is regressive in that it would create the most hardship (as a percentage of income) for lower-income citizens who likely do the least damage to County roads and be the least inconvenient (as a percentage of income) for individuals and businesses who operate vehicles that do the most damage to those roads (e.g. large trucks, buses, etc). In this economy, why would anyone propose a tax that further shifts the common financial burdens of maintaining our infrastructure on to those who can least afford it? And that doesn't even begin to address issues like the fact that someone operating a bus (for example) could be contributing to reducing the number of cars on the road, a behavior that should be rewarded instead of taxed additionally.
The introduction of a proposal for a new tax often comes with the statement (as it does in this case), "if we don't do this now, we'll be paying even more later." In some cases, that might be true, but the burden of proof should be extraordinarily high to show that it is. There are all sorts of behaviors we engage in (that don't even involve outright taxation) that defer the negative consequences of a failure to act and shift the burden onto future generations. Why is this lack of long-term planning the most pressing to fix?
When we fail to plan the layout of our communities in ways that are bike- and pedestrian-friendly and instead encourage everyone to drive around one person to a car whenever they want to, we tax our citizens of tomorrow with rising road maintenance and healthcare costs. When we base financial planning on unfounded optimism about the ability of "the market" or "the global economy" to do this or that in a given year, we tax our citizens who depend on a budgeting process that's grounded in reality. When as a culture we tell ourselves that we should be able to have all modern conveniences at steadily lowering costs with higher quality and we deserve it RIGHT NOW no matter the environmental or social impact, we tax future generations who will be forced to wake up from that dream more suddenly and inconveniently than we can imagine.
Is there any reason to believe that imposing a wheel tax on the citizens of Wayne County is the best, most well-thought-out solution for the long-term health of transportation in the area? Or is it just a short-term fix that covers over poor planning and unrealistic fiscal policy?
Most importantly, can we trust our elected officials to slow down the artificial momentum for this tax proposal, and really listen to how this community answers those questions?