Starke County Council members want more information about proposed wheel tax rates, types of vehicles that would be taxed and how any funds generated would be used for road improvements before making any decision about implementing such a tax. County Highway Superintendent Rik Ritzler will chair a committee comprised of council members Marvin McLaughlin, Freddie Baker and Bob Sims and Commissioner Kathy Norem. After they discuss the details, a public input meeting will be scheduled to further explain the process. Ritzler has streamlined the highway department’s operations since taking over but says efficiency can only go so far. “Our limiting factor is the oil and stone that we use to improve roads. We have a certain amount of funding sources, we used them all. The only way of increasing is a user tax that is available to us, a user fee. 47 of the 92 counties in Indiana have it. Of the counties that don’t have it, many have an additional source of funding that’s not available to us, and that’s riverboat gambling money. We are in the bottom fifth of road conditions in the state,” Ritzler told the council. “I’m not necessarily advocating a user fee. I’m just saying here’s what we can do without it, and here’s what we can do with it. I think that’s the difference, and I think it is worthy of a discussion. I’m not necessarily advocating doing it, but it is definitely something to explore. There are many different levels you can do within that user fee. You can adjust it in many different ways.”
Several council members noted that Starke County’s roads are in good shape overall, and in many cases are better than those in adjacent counties. Ritzler says that’s because the county has very few asphalt roads.
“Most of our roads are layers of chip seal that eventually over the years, after compression from the vehicles, becomes what is basically the equivalent of asphalt. The problem with that is farm vehicles are getting larger. If you’ll notice on a lot of our roads, a good example is 250 North, west of the highway department towards the Starke County Co-Op, the edge of that road is crumbling. A lot of our ditches are very close to the road. Because of the heavier weight of those vehicles, we have very many roads that have a longitudinal crack in them, and it’s starting to go. We can band-aid those, but they will never get better and will get worse to the point where we have roads fail,” Ritzler said.
He added the county can repair roads but does not have the money for big fixes like the crack on 250 between 200 and Range Road. According to Ritzler, making the permanent improvements necessary to accommodate farm vehicle traffic will cost about $300,000. That’s more than half of the county’s annual road repair budget for all 688 miles of roads.
He says the highway department has money in reserve for some emergencies that may arise, like the emergency bridge repair on County Road 700 East. However, Toto or Range Road or 250 North fails, Ritzler says the county does not have the capacity to fix them without endangering all of the other roads and making them a lot worse.
State law limits the amount of wheel tax counties can charge and regulates what types of vehicles can be taxed. You can read the law by clicking here: http://www.in.gov/legislative/ic/2010/title6/ar3.5/ch5.html. Council members stress no decision will be made without first holding an informational meeting to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such a tax with the public.