WAVERLY — Rounds of applause erupted as speaker after speaker pushed back against a proposed Lancaster County wheel tax Wednesday.
Although no legal paperwork to enact the tax is in front of the Hickman and Waverly city councils or the Lancaster County Board, more than 100 people turned out to oppose its implementation in one of the final hearings on the concept.
Proponents have backed the controversial wheel tax as a means to help reduce an infrastructure funding gap of nearly $15 million, improve roads leading into the county's fastest-growing cities — Hickman and Waverly — and provide tax equity between Lincoln residents and county residents.
Any supporters in the crowd at the two-hour meeting steered clear of the microphone in the Waverly Community Center.
"Are you listening to these people? They don’t want this,” one Waverly man said, noting opponents stopped a previous attempt at a county wheel tax in 2005.
Most of the night's speakers farm in the county and blasted the tax as another unfair demand on an overtaxed group of county residents.
"My concern with the wheel tax comes down to this is a targeted-to-ag-owners tax," farmer Paula Peterson said, noting current grain prices and property taxes aren't wallet-friendly.
Some of the comments put County Commissioner Rick Vest, the hearing's moderator, on defense at times.
"We’re not going after the farmers even though it may feel like it,” Vest said.
"Yeah, right," a woman in the crowd replied.
Most of the property taxes sent to the Lancaster County Board's general fund come from the city of Lincoln, and Lincoln residents pay a wheel tax that helps fund street repairs.
County Engineer Pam Dingman has said years of deferred infrastructure funding have complicated her department's abilities to maintain roads, reopen bridges and keep up with growth.
Busy roads such as 148th Street into Waverly and South 68th Street into Hickman need to be widened, but the funding isn't there, she told the crowd.
And though her department received an additional $3 million to fund road and bridge improvements this year, the county board hasn't guaranteed it will continue those types of increases.
Projections show the new wheel tax would apply to about 44,000 vehicles and generate about $3.3 million in revenue each year, with rates largely mirroring those paid in Lincoln. However, farm vehicles would be taxed at half the rate of their commercial vehicle counterparts in Lincoln.
Under the tax, car owners would pay $74 a year.
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Aaron Studebaker, who farms near Raymond, agreed there's an infrastructure problem in the county, but this funding option is prejudiced against farmers, a minority of the county's population.
"It is becoming impossible to farm in this county," he said.
He'd have to pay taxes on some vehicles that don't leave his yard most days.
Raising the gas tax would be more fair, he said.
A Waverly social worker asked whether this tax would unduly burden the low-income families or senior citizens who live in the city.
Waverly officials should keep them in mind when weighing the new tax, she said.
Several men asked whether the tax would have a sunset clause or if their grandchildren would be paying for projects in perpetuity.
Vest said that a sunset clause could be considered if the three governments decide to proceed with the wheel tax.
As proposed, the tax would apply to Hickman and Waverly, along with rural Lancaster County residents, which includes the residents of the unincorporated villages of Prairie Home, Rokeby, Cheney, Emerald, Agnew, Holland, Walton, Princeton, Kramer and Martell.
The tax would not apply to the residents of the incorporated villages of Hallam, Firth, Roca, Sprague, Raymond, Malcolm, Davey, Denton, Panama and Bennet.
Thursday, members of the committee that proposed the wheel tax concept will meet with leaders of the incorporated villages to discuss the possibility of including them.
Lancaster County Commissioners Roma Amundson and Deb Schorr, and Waverly Mayor Mike Werner, also attended the meeting.
All four have expressed support for the concept as a means to fund county road improvements.
The last public hearing will be Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Hickman Community Center, 115 Locust St.
Once the hearings have concluded, the governments involved will decide whether to proceed.
The wheel tax documents would be subject to further public hearings before votes by the three governments.