Commissioners table vehicle fee vote

By SARAH PAEZ

spaez@lockhaven.com

LOCK HAVEN — Clinton County commissioners tabled action on the hotly contested proposal of a countywide $5 fee on motor vehicle registrations to be used for roads and bridges after members of the public expressed their views at Thursday’s voting meeting.

While talking with commissioners, residents complained of a lack of communication between local government and the public, and ways to improve government transparency.

Kevin Ferrara, a retired Air Force veteran, brought up concerns about the fee spiraling out of control.

“It starts off as a $5 fee. Next it moves to a $10, or $20,” and then the state “wants to impose a property tax on vehicles,” he said.

Ferrara outlined money he said the county has received for transportation projects and road work, including an $1.08 million state grant for the Bald Eagle Valley Trail and the $40,000 state grant Renovo Borough received to conduct a feasibility study on sidewalk rehabilitation.

County residents feel the tug on their wallets, he said, but insisted that they do not see results in the roads.

And, he said, money put toward recreation projects and feasibility studies could be used instead to improve roads.

“It seems like the taxpayers, we’re getting hit twice,” he said regarding the $5 county vehicle registration fee on top of the state road tax. “A lot of people would like to see this put to a public vote.”

Commissioners responded with attempts to shed light on how the distribution of government funds works. “We want the public to have clarity and have facts,” especially during a social media firestorm, said Chairman Pete Smeltz. But, he said, he does not support a public vote for the fee.

Commissioner Jeff Snyder said the vehicle registration fee funds that the county would collect would be matched by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

“Those dollars stay local,” and go toward municipal roads and bridges, he said.

The Express called Rich Kirkpatrick, communications director for PennDOT, who said the matching funds come from a pool of federal money for bridge rehabilitation, called the Surface Transport Program (STP), of which the state has $44 million.

Some 30 percent of locally owned bridges around the country are failing, said Kirkpatrick. And, he said, Pennsylvania is a large state with waterways that cause erosion and flooding problems for its many bridges.

“It continues to be a significant ongoing problem,” he said. “This is an important program.”

Counties may use the $5 fee funds at their discretion, he said, but the PennDOT STP funds must be used for bridge projects. Every county can secure up to $2 million in STP money but it has to be a dollar for dollar match. The $5 fee and other funding streams can be used to secure the matching funds.

Clinton County owns two bridges but does not own any roads, commissioners said.

Addressing Ferrara’s comments on the rail-trail and sidewalk rehabilitation grants, Smeltz said those grants exist for specific purposes, like recreation and community presentation. If the county had not applied for and received those grants, the money would have gone to another county.

As for using recreation grants for transportation projects, he said, “you cannot mix those funding streams.”

Smeltz also said commissioners met with municipalities around the county to gauge their interest in the fee, since they would benefit from it the most.

One municipality, which was not named, returned a letter endorsing the fee.

One option commissioners have to fund municipal road projects are liquid fuels money that comes from the state’s oil franchise tax. The state distributes payments based half on locally owned road miles and half on population. The county receives about $85,000 a year in liquid fuels funds to use for road and bridge construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair.

“The needs of (liquid fuels) applications presented to us always far exceed the money we have,” Smeltz said.

He mentioned but did not name a municipal road that is vital for tourism and needs paving, but keeps getting oil-and-chipped for lack of funding (it takes $100,000 per mile to pave a road).

“Consider adopting this $5 fee: The residents of Clinton County pay, the state collects it, it comes right back,” he said.

Snyder said if the state Legislature would implement a fee increase, as Ferrara suggested it could, “commissioners also have the authority” to repeal the fee.

Ralph Ferrara, another resident and a former county employee, asked if there was anything stopping the Legislature from raising the $5 fee counties can impose next year, to which commissioners could not definitively say no.

He said if it continued to rise, “I’m getting a horse and buggy.”

“We have been trying to get this conversation out in the public” through work sessions and announcements in the paper, said Snyder.

But Michelle Whitney, also a county resident, said she believes county government has difficulties getting important information like the fee proposal out to the public.

“There’s definitely communication issues here,” she said.

Chief Clerk Jann Meyers said the county has a Facebook page but doesn’t really use it to communicate with the public on county issues. The county also has a website.

Kevin suggested livestreaming or video-recording the meetings.

He also recommended – as The Express did in a recent editorial – having a town hall meeting to inform the public on the fee.

Largely, commissioners said they understand the concerns of county taxpayers.

Smeltz said there were many issues to get angry about, including the fact that public transit in Philadelphia (and other places) is funded in part by the 57 cent per gallon state gas tax, or that some liquid fuels funds go to state police.

He supported a town hall meeting, and when commissioners voted to table the fee vote, they also included a provision to consider holding an informational town hall on government funding and how the fee works.

Commissioners also awarded the last $8,200 of 2018 liquid fuels funds to Dunnstable Township for a paving project on Harley Drive and Park Avenue, as part of a larger Pine Creek Township road project.

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