Our view: Luzerne County should OK $5 fee, but not as long-term fix

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A few weeks ago, members of our editorial board had a discussion about Luzerne County’s proposal to introduce a new $5 vehicle fee ordinance.

Anyone who has been following the issue should not be surprised to hear that reasonable, intelligent adults could not come to a unanimous agreement on this controversial subject.

Only seven of 11 county lawmakers agreed to take the next step toward implementation when they voted last week to take the first step. Judging by online comments on Times Leader stories about the subject, readers across Luzerne County are divided, too — though we definitely seem to be hearing more from the opposition.

Next week, members of the public will have the opportunity to weigh in on the issue during a public hearing before council votes, likely the same night. And remember, this is for county-owned roads and bridges only, not for local or state roads.

Here were our two main views:

There was a small majority willing to give qualified support to the plan, but only if lawmakers and administrators could demonstrate how they will use the added funds and why existing revenue streams don’t cover the need.

There was a vocal minority — well, one very adamant member of our board — unwilling to support the $5 fee for any reason. It’s just another tax, he said, and those responsible for maintaining the roads and bridges should have been able to get the job done with the money we already pay in local, county and state taxes and PennDOT fees.

But no one on our board said “this is a wonderful idea, so take our $5, please!” Why? Journalists spend a good chunk of our professional lives reporting on how public officials spend public funds, so we are naturally skeptical.

We grew even more skeptical when it emerged that PennDOT’s dollar-for-dollar match on vehicle fee funds spent on bridges, up to $2 million, is only a one-time thing, and not a yearly revenue stream the county can count on. State officials would like to offer it annually, but that’s not officially on the table.

So, what should the county do?

We feel that lawmakers should move ahead with the $5 plan, but only for one year, while the state match is available. They should include a very clear sunset provision so that this $5 fee doesn’t linger on into perpetuity, long after most people have forgotten about it.

If the state decides to revisit the match program, then and only then should Luzerne County look to renew the fee. But that should not be the final word.

History and geography mean our county is saddled with an extensive network of aging roads and bridges that are expensive to maintain, a challenge compounded by a stagnant tax base. Many of these were inherited by the county decades ago, when cash-strapped rural municipalities could no longer afford to maintain them. Many, but not all, are located around the county’s fringes.

So we recognize the county’s need. We don’t agree that the $5 fee is the best answer — especially without a state match, but even with yearly matches it’s only a partial solution.

We need better long-term planning at home. If the county doesn’t raise enough in taxes and can’t wring enough extra money from the state, lawmakers may need to make tough choices when budget time comes around: Either take money from other areas to fix these roads and bridges, or face the politically dangerous move of closing some in the name of public safety.

We feel confident few elected officials are willing to risk angering voters by closing roads and bridges for lack of money. Letting those facilities deteriorate into a hazardous state shouldn’t be an option, either.

What county officials across Pennsylvania also need to be doing is pressing Harrisburg harder for more money to counties from the gasoline tax — one of several important fixes that should be made to the state’s grossly flawed transportation funding laws.

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