|John Brown noted that the County owns 119 bridges|
In Pennsylvania, it costs $36 to register your car every year. An effort to raise that fee to $41 in Northampton County failed at Council's July 21 meeting. For the measure to pass, five votes were needed. There were only three. Bob Werner, one of two sponsors for this rate hike and was "all for it," was absent. Mat Benol, who originally called it a "good idea," changed his mind.
In 2013, the state legislature enacted a massive gas tax, giving the Keystone State the highest gas taxes in the nation, even higher than California and New York. Legislators also authorized counties to impose a $5 "local use fee" on vehicle registrations, so long as the money is used for transportation. So far, 11 counties have enacted this additional tax. Northampton County has rejected an opportunity to be the 12th.
"This is a user fee," explained Council President John Cusick in June, adding that roads and bridges have been a core government function since the days of the Roman Empire."The question is how to we pay for this need," he said. "One option is real estate taxes. The other is this user fee"
According to Cusick, who also sponsored this measure, this would mean $1.4 million in additional revenue for bridge repairs. The money could also be awarded to municipalities that need to make road repairs.
"It's $5, I support this," said Ken Kraft, raising the specter of residents unable to get firetrucks to their homes, or who are forced to go out of their way to get their children on a schoolbus that subsequently plunges from a defective bridge into the murky depths of a creek. "If you don't vote for this, you're voting against the primary reason you got on County Council.... This is a no-brainer"
"This is a unique opportunity for us to have a dedicated funding stream," argued Peg Ferraro."To me, it's good fiscal management." She noted that bridge repairs are usually funded by bonds that require the County to pay debt service. "Things have been kicked down the road for the twenty-some years I've been here."
"I think this is a tax that we're voting to increase," countered Hayden Phillips. "I think we have sufficient money to handle the bridges and the needs of the County."
Matt Dietz claimed that the money raised in a real estate tax hike two years ago is adequate to cover bridge repairs.
Mat Benol, who originally called this a "good idea," flip flopped. He at first tried to table the increase but was unsuccessful. He now wants to see a plan from Public Works before voting to increase registration fees. "All I want is a plan." Glenn Geissinger echoed Benol, but opposes imposing a user fee that nets $1.4 million unless Council simultaneously reduces real estate taxes in the same amount.
Executive John Brown told Council that 99 of the County's 119 bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Three have been closed. He predicts that it would cost about $100 million in today's dollars to repair all the County-owned bridges. He pointed out that average age of the County's bridges is 61 years, and that also happens to be each bridge's life expectancy. He said he is concerned about safety and liability, and added there are other capital needs, including a 1870s era jail that needs to be replaced.
Brown indicated that the $1.4 million received from a vehicle registration rate hike would be required by state law to go into an account dedicated to bridge repairs.
No members of the public spoke about this ordinance. But two weeks ago, Pen Argyl's Jeff Fox urged Council to vote it down. "These hurt the poorest the hardest,' he argued.”Many of the biggest users have vehicles not registered in the county. You can call it a fee or whatever you will. It is indeed another tax. If you call yourself a fiscal conservative or care about the less advantaged within our county, vote it down."
When it came down to a vote, the registration fee hike was supported only by John Cusick, Peg Ferraro and Ken Kraft.