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With the Sales Tax Officially Tabled, the County Explores MSBU for Roads

A remarkable amount of meeting time occurred Tuesday.

A morning public workshop did not get to an open to the public portion until about two hours into the board discussion. This was followed by a regular meeting of the county commission that had an open to the public portion that lasted over two hours as the debate continued in full fury over the appointments to the library advisory board.

The two centerpiece issues from Tuesday were how to fund road resurfacing and the library display policy. This provided a good reflection of what state lawmakers have been debating as well, though with different issues.

On one hand, there is a pertinent issue that directly affects people’s lives and property. On the other, there is a culture war position that allows you to virtue signal how you define morality. This latter debate, which lasted three and a half hours in total - similar to when the issue was first raised in early January, had the same result. No changes were made to the display policy in January and no changes were made on the library board on Tuesday.

Let’s go in a different direction. Let’s take a local look at the boring one based on governance.

The public workshop opened with Chairman Ron Kitchen immediately putting forth the idea for a full cent sales tax rather than a half cent sales tax for reasons that didn’t seem justifiable.

A half cent will just be rounded up, he repeated at one point making a subtle reference to the 1990s comedy movie Office Space as to why there is no difference between a half cent and a full cent because of the rounding.

This is an overly simplistic view of how the tax works, but it quickly became a moot point. Commissioner Holly Davis spoke in favor of a sales tax but mentioned that ideally this increased burden on the taxpayer is for additional services such as increased police presence, an expanded social safety net or even, in some extreme metropolitan areas, funding for a new sports arena.

Her point, which was a good one, is that road funding is a county responsibility with the money that is collected through property tax and should not require special taxing to complete this basic essential function of government.

It didn’t matter how good the point was. Chairman Kitchen’s idea of what the sales tax should be had now been tainted and his own proposal he opened the meeting with lost his own favor.

The county administrator chimed in saying that six months advance notice is required for a ballot initiative and that the board would have to call an additional meeting, a special emergency meeting, just to vote on the language in time to get it on the 2022 ballot.

Seeing that the tides of support on the board were shifting, the most avid proponent of the sales tax Commissioner Ruthie Schlabach demurred to taking the option off the table. The issue of increasing the sales tax is now officially dormant until after the two newly elected members, whomever they may be from this cycle, join after November.

So how will the roads be funded? Two more ways emerged. The first is to start with a two-tenths of a mill increase of property taxes every year for five years. For those doing the quick math, that raises the property tax one full mill in five years for roads.

This is projected to bring in the $15 million needed annually by the time it reaches its full increase in five years, but with the number of roads on the brink of needing immediate repair, this number will be insufficient to keep from more roads falling into disrepair.

Commissioner Jeff Kinnard proposed a countywide municipal services benefit unit, or MSBU, for roads. The benefits, he explained, were that the fee is reviewed annually and it only collects what is needed.

The MSBU will become the next big topic as the board will need to vote on approving it at a later date. It’s unclear how much it will cost, but the $76 annual fire MSBU brings in roughly $5 million.

If $15 million is needed, existing allocations usually disappear in favor of fully funding through the MSBU (i.e. storm water management), then the fee could be well over $200 per property though this is only an estimated projection subject to change.

The commission has a clearer direction, but we’re a long way from resolution.


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