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Monroe Street construction

Madison's Monroe Street is undergoing a major reconstruction. On Tuesday, Mayor Paul Soglin plans to introduce a $17 vehicle-registration fee to help cover road construction costs, close budget gaps and funnel other money toward community services.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin on Thursday told City Council members he will propose a $17 city vehicle-registration fee to help close recurring budget shortfalls and maintain community service programs for low-income residents.

The proposal comes on the heels of a $28 vehicle-registration fee Dane County enacted this year and just as Soglin embarks on a summer of campaigning for the Democratic nomination for governor.

In an email to council members and staff, Soglin said that with state property tax limits and the Republican-controlled Legislature’s refusal to increase the gas tax or make other substantive changes to boost road funding, “many communities are turning to this fee.”

Soglin said he plans to introduce the fee at Tuesday’s council meeting. Under state law, it would need to clear the council by its Sept. 4 meeting to take effect Jan. 1, he said. The fee would bring the total amount in city, county and state registration fees to $120 per vehicle.

Soglin said the fee would raise about $3.3 million annually on about 194,000 vehicles registered in the city and follows the city’s decisions in recent years to enact an urban forestry charge, hike the ambulance-conveyance fee and increase the city’s room tax rate from 9 percent to 10 percent this year.

If the fee is approved, the revenue it generates would have to be used for transportation, but other general fund monies it frees up would be used to close the city’s estimated $4.7 million projected budget gap next year and to “maintain and hopefully expand community services programs,” Soglin said.

“One of my top priorities in that area is to better connect individuals and families in some of our most challenged neighborhoods with city services,” he wrote.

Council President Samba Baldeh didn’t say whether he supported the fee but said “with the current state of affairs with state and national government, the city does not have much leeway closing budget gaps.”

Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, said he opposed the fee “on principle.”

“Madison and other communities have been relying on imposing fees to raise revenues beyond the state-imposed levy limits, rather than looking at reducing budgets,” Skidmore said, contending that about a quarter of the city’s operating budget is devoted to servicing the city’s debt.

Soglin has railed against the city’s increasing debt load in recent years, but has run into City Council opposition to delaying capital projects and other initiatives.

Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce spokesman Erik Greenfield said the organization has not taken a position on the proposed new fee.

Jed Sanborn, a conservative former member of the City Council, noted that the mayor acknowledges in his memo to the council that the fee is regressive, which means people pay the same amount regardless of their income.

“He tries to compensate for that by saying it’ll help fund city services, but the money is supposed to be used only for transportation,” he said, adding that “it’s just more revenue any way they can get it.”

In his message to the council, Soglin said data show Wisconsin’s vehicle fees and taxes are lower than most other states’, and it has the eighth-lowest auto insurance rates in the country.

“Taken together, the cost of owning and operating a vehicle in Wisconsin is relatively low compared with the rest of the country,” he said.

He said 19 Wisconsin municipalities and eight counties have enacted vehicle registration fees.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.