FAIRFIELD COUNTY — After discussion and considering alternative options, Fairfield County Council reached a consensus to include a road usage fee in the third reading of the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget.
The road usage fee, which would be paid annually, would consist of a $5 fee per residential vehicle registered in Fairfield County and a $10 fee for commercial vehicles.
Vice Chairman Kamau Marcharia, Councilman Marion Robinson, Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley and Council Chair Carolyn Robinson were in favor of the fee. Councilman Dan Ruff, Councilman Walter Larry Stewart and Councilman Billy Smith voiced opinions in opposition of the road usage fee.
“I just kind of feel like we need to do the fee,” Kinley said.
Kinley said she asked roughly 40 of her constituents for their opinions, and not one person objected to the fee. She said she also appreciated that the fee applies only to those who own vehicles.
“Everybody that has a car pays, and it’s not just taxes if you own property,” Kinley said. “I think if everybody has a car, and they’re driving a car, they deserve to be able pay equal share to repair our roads.”
Before ultimately consenting to include the fee, Council considered a possible version of the budget, which did not include the additional $123,570 administration projects the road usage fee will generate.
“What we have provided to you is an option, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a recommendation, it’s an option,” County Administrator Milton Pope said. “But it’s an option for you to consider to supplant the road maintenance fee, to fund it in a different manner.”
Pope also emphasized the distinction between a fee, such as the proposed road maintenance fee, and a tax.
Unless specifically authorized by the General Assembly, a local government cannot impose a new tax. Taxes raise revenue, while fees recover money spent providing services. Money collected from a fee must be used to pay for costs related to the service associated with a fee.
Fairfield County’s administrator also identified some of the changes made to the budget to reallocate funds, such as reducing the amount of money budgeted for gasoline and diesel by $39,150.
“We have, probably for the last year and a half, enjoyed the luxury of petroleum prices going down,” Pope said. “That has allowed us to be flat in our budgetary items, and that’s why we actually used one of those categories.”
Robinson expressed concerns about reducing the money budgeted for fuel.
“If we went with this, I’m really concerned about the gasoline and diesel prices,” Robinson said. “Just in Fairfield County, today, the prices went up 10 cents per gallon.”
Robinson asked where funds would come from if the cost of fuel exceeded the budgeted amount. Pope said administration would make conscientious decisions to cut spending to transfer accounts to be able to fund the cost of fuel.
“If it got to a situation where it was dire, where we couldn’t transfer inter-departmentally, then what we would have to do is come back to Council to be able to address that,” Pope said.
Robinson said she was particularly concerned with reallocating $25,650 away from fuel costs associated with road maintenance.
Pope also identified county allocations as a prominent source of potential road maintenance money.
In the budget option that would not include a road maintenance fee, a total of $18,500 would be reallocated from Good Samaritan House, Fairfield County Board for Disabilities and Special Needs, Transitions, American Red Cross and Chameleon Inspirations. This would effectively keep the county allocations at the same level as last fiscal year.
Marcharia and Kinley objected to providing less money to those services. Marcharia called the social services crucial.
“I agree with Mr. Marcharia, there are a lot of really good services here,” Kinley said.
Stewart said he felt it was important to note that funding for the programs was not being completely cut, but simply remaining static. He further added he approved of the alternative to a road maintenance fee.
“I see nothing wrong with this with the understanding, as we go through the year, if we have to go back and reload these, then we’ll do it,” Stewart said. “As it stands here, this looks good to me.”
Smith and Ruff said they supported the option presented by administration.
“I like this,” Ruff said. “I like this way of doing it. I’m in favor of it.”
Smith asked about other items in the county allocations budget, specifically ones the county had not funded before but was in the coming fiscal year — Boys and Girls Club for $5,000, Harvest Hope for $5,000 and $5,000 for Eau Claire Health Cooperative.
Smith asked why money had not been reallocated from those services.
Pope explained administration cut the money necessary to account for the disparity created by removing the road usage fee and simply stopped when that total was reached.
“The simple answer is once we got to the number of $123,570, then I stopped,” he said.
Smith and Ruff advocated putting the money council allocated for Boys and Girls Club, Harvest Hope and Eau Claire Health Cooperative toward gasoline and diesel.
Robinson said something must be done to provide recurring income for maintaining roads. Council, she said, had been put into an unenviable position by unfunded mandates.
“We’re not the only ones who have a problem with the governor and the people in this county and this state for passing unfunded mandates down to a local level,” Robinson said. “We have bridges out right now in the county that can’t be repaired because there’s no money from the state.”
Robinson retold a story she shared at the previous work session regarding the negative impact she feels unfunded mandates have on local governments.
“I have a 2012 report of unfunded mandates that come down from the state to us, and one Saturday, I sat and listed every single one of those and what it cost us to run those services,” Robinson said. “Then I checked it off to see what the state sent us, and it’s a difference of $2.9 million that’s coming out of this budget.”
Robinson said if Fairfield County had an additional $2.9 million, Council would not face difficult budget-making decisions. However, she said things could soon be worse if the state continues the trend of leaving counties overburdened and underfunded.
“If the state does not soon put some money into these county and state roads, we’re going to be back in horse and buggy days,” Robinson said.
Robinson also chided the hypocrisy of complaining about a $5 residential vehicle fee, when state tags have increased in price.
“Everybody that drives one in the state has a tag on their car, and you have to pay for that little sticker every year,” Robinson said. “It used to be $15. Do you know what it is now? It’s $24.”
Robinson asked if there had been vocal opposition to the price increase.
“Did y’all go running — council, citizens — did y’all go running to your Legislature and scream and holler about that tag going up?” Robinson said. “That’s a fee. You had no say in it, and they would have just laughed at you if you did.”
Robinson said she has been told $5 is not enough to buy a pack of cigarettes.
“It might buy a good cold beer, a lottery ticket,” Robinson said. “We’re talking about one time in 365 days, and yet the state just took nine extra dollars from you in a fee, so that you have the privilege to drive on the state highways.”
Ultimately, the pleasure of Council was to include the road maintenance fee in the third reading of the budget.
Third reading will be at Fairfield County Council’s June 8 meeting.