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Portage council OKs wheel tax; goes into effect Jan. 1

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PORTAGE — Residents and business owners here will pay an additional tax beginning next year that will pave the way for additional road projects.

The City Council approved in a 4-3 vote Wednesday night a wheel tax that will go into effect Jan. 1.

The decision followed a 90-minute meeting in which hundreds of residents packed the Portage High School auditorium, most speaking against the new tax.

Resident George Stahl, who opposed it, left the auditorium with many others some yelling to city officials they would remember who voted for the tax and would remember that during the next election.

"It was a waste of time. I'm very disgusted," Stahl said, after the meeting.

Introduced at the council's meeting earlier this month, the wheel tax would collect $25 per residential vehicle and $40 per commercial vehicle registered within the city. An amendment introduced at Wednesday's meeting lowered the tax to $12.50 for motorcycles, motor-driven vehicles, recreational vehicles and personal trailers.

Portage Mayor James Snyder, a Republican, said a bipartisan group of himself, Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham, a Democrat, and City Council President Mark Oprisko, a Democrat, proposed the wheel tax as a source of continuous revenue for road projects. He said their proposal already included using the $954,000 in 2016 as a grant match for road paving.

Snyder said the city must adopt the wheel tax by June 30 to have matching grant funds in 2017 and beyond. He said several municipalities, including Portage, pushed for the legislation to allow cities to adopt a wheel tax for additional revenue for infrastructure improvements.

Stahl, who was the first of several residents who lined up to speak, said it was one of the first times he has spoken out against a city proposal.

"It's not necessary. It's a bad time, especially for poor people," Stahl said.

Retired resident Beto Barrera also criticized the wheel tax.

"I'm here opposing it. It is a burden and will be a burden to many. And it's also anti-businesses since they will be hit hard," Barrera said.

A few residents, who were booed by many in the audience, spoke in favor of the wheel tax.

Resident Eric Ballard, one of those tax advocates, said he's a proud homeowner and also the owner of several vehicles.

"We can all agree that there's more work needed to be done on our streets. I'll get hit pretty hard but it's a worthy investment," Ballard said.

Those voting in favor of the wheel tax included council members Liz Modesto, D-1st; Pat Clem, D-2nd; John Cannon, R-4th and Mark Oprisko, D-at-large.

Those voting against it were council members Sue Lynch, D- at-large; Scott Williams, D-3rd and Collin Czilli, D-5th.

Lynch, Williams and Czilli had all gone on record previously at a news conference held Friday morning outside Portage City Hall.

During the news conference, the three said they wanted the city to step back before handing residents another tax.

The three said they believe the wheel tax should be tabled right now. Instead, a $954,000 one-time distribution from the state of local option income tax should be used as the match.

Williams also suggested the city could use the $800,000 it is saving by recently raising the trash fee for road funding.

"We already have the match money rather than impose a wheel tax," Lynch said.

All three repeated their earlier messages at the meeting.

"I'm opposed to the wheel tax because we're rushing into putting a forever tax on the residents," Lynch said.

Oprisko, one of four council members voting in favor of the new tax, said the state has done absolutely nothing to help cities like Portage pay for road repairs.

"I don't like to be taxed myself but I've driven around our streets and the streets are going bad. I'm going to vote for the tax," Oprisko said.

Cannon said that the cost to repair vehicles damaged by bad roads is much more expensive to a family than paying the wheel tax.

"Folks, no one wants to raise taxes, but if we don't do it now it will quadruple in 10 years. I will be voting for the tax," Cannon said.

Diane Bowman, a field director for Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing political advocacy group founded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, stood at the entrance of the auditorium prior to the start of the meeting.

Bowman handed signs saying no to the wheel tax proposal as well as T-shirts.

She said Indiana residents are already paying their fair share to repair roads.

Crown Point officials also have raised the issue of a similar wheel tax.


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