Luzerne County officials debate proposed $5 vehicle registration fee

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | May 17th, 2016 10:04 pm

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

After more than a year of sporadic debate, Luzerne County Council members plan to vote next week on a controversial $5 fee on vehicles registered to addresses within the county.

Four council votes are required to introduce the fee ordinance, with six votes needed at a future meeting for the fee to take effect.

State legislators authorized the fee in 2013 to provide counties with new revenue to help fund road and bridge maintenance expenses.

Eleven of the state’s 67 counties have enacted the fee to date, according to the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. York County officials also are considering the fee.

Luzerne County would generate an estimated $1 million annually through the fee, which would cover the lion’s share of its yearly $1.5 million in road and bridge expenses, officials said.

During a work session discussion last week, Councilman Rick Williams said that $1.5 million is part of a $130 million general fund operating budget funded primarily by property taxes, which make up 85 percent of revenue.

“So if you don’t own property in the county, you really don’t contribute to the general fund,” Williams said, characterizing the fee as a way of “diversifying revenue” and “sharing the burden of the cost of county government.”

Councilman Eugene Kelleher said he disagrees with a provision exempting companies and other entities with vehicle fleets from paying the fee. However, he said he will endure “slings and arrows” from critics and support the fee because the revenue must be earmarked for roads and bridges.

The county ended up owning and maintaining most of its 127 miles of roadway and 310 bridges during the Great Depression, when the court ordered a takeover because municipalities didn’t have the financial means to care for the infrastructure.

The county faces difficult budgetary decisions because the 2016 budget relied on $7 million in revenue that won’t be available again or is earmarked for other purposes.

Councilman Edward Brominski opposed the fee, saying it will still hurt property owners who own vehicles.

Councilwoman Jane Walsh Waitkus agreed, saying it’s a “double tax on property owners.”

Councilman Harry Haas said he’s torn because he supports seeking revenue from those who don’t pay property taxes, but many property owners have vehicles. He suggested decreasing the property tax rate based on the new revenue.

Kingston resident Brian Shiner, who regularly attends meetings, said an additional $5 is “asking too much. He disputed the argument the fee will force those who don’t own property to contribute because he believes all landlords factor their property tax payments into the rent.

Former councilman Stephen J. Urban, Wilkes-Barre, advised against the fee.

“How much are you going to nickle and dime the people?” he asked.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.