The owners of 281,000 vehicles in Luzerne County must pay an extra $5 to help fix county-owned roads and bridges, but only as long as Pennsylvania provides a match, a council majority decided Tuesday.
Several citizens urged council to vote against the $5 vehicle registration fee during public comment and a pre-meeting hearing.
Resident George Kochis cited several examples of rising fees he must pay for utilities and the Wyoming Valley Levee. Residents are powerless to stop the government from further increases, he said.
“Let your conscience be your guide,” said Kochis, of Kingston.
The fee will yield an estimated $1.4 million annually to repair the county’s 302 bridges and approximately 125.3 miles of county roads. The state will match up to $2 million to fix bridges in each county with a $5 fee, but only once, a PennDOT official has said.
A sunset provision was included with the fee’s passage. The fee will automatically end without a continuing state funding match, so the $5 may be only a one-time cost for county residents.
The ordinance should take effect in 105 days, county representatives said.
Voting for the ordinance were council members Robert Schnee, Eugene Kelleher, Tim McGinley, Christopher Perry, Sheila Saidman, Matthew Vough and Jane Walsh Waitkus.
Council members Edward Brominski, Harry Haas, Linda McClosky Houck and Stephen A. Urban voted against the fee.
Several fee supporters on council reiterated they do not want to forego an opportunity to obtain the state match, particularly when needed repairs far exceed available funding.
Critics continued their argument that the fee is too burdensome and unfairly forces vehicle owners countywide to pay more for infrastructure in other municipalities.
A review of records shows the county’s roads pass through 22 of its 76 municipalities, all townships. In comparison, the 302 county-owned bridges are in 30 townships, six boroughs and two cities — Nanticoke and Pittston, records show.
McClosky Houck said she has heard from many opponents of the fee, which she described as an “extra tax.”
Brominski said vehicle owners, especially the elderly, should not be penalized for the county’s lack of infrastructure maintenance. He said two friends stopped coming to his senior citizen coffee group because they can’t afford a bagel and coffee.
“We’re doing something wrong when our people can’t go out and enjoy the years they have left,” he said, arguing county officials must “learn to tighten our belts and work with what we have.”
Urban said many rural areas with county roads and bridges have very low millage rates and should assume the responsibility and cost of the infrastructure.
Walsh Waitkus said it’s the county’s “duty” to restore its roads and bridges to “driveable condition” and said outlying areas are as much a part of the county as the Wyoming Valley core.
Saidman said she spoke to many constituents about the fee and was encouraged to support it.
“I want to listen to both sides. People I talked to overwhelmingly wanted it,” Saidman said.
Kelleher said he also supports a suggestion from citizen Brian Shiner to first address infrastructure that municipalities are willing to take over in an attempt to get out of the road and bridge business.
Shiner was among the fee critics, saying the administration did not specifically explain how the money will be spent.
“Where’s your plan?” he asked.
Wilkes-Barre resident Stephen J. Urban, a one-time county councilman, criticized fee supporters on council for “nickeling-and diming people to death.”
John Petraukas, of Kingston, said the fee hurts the working poor and urged council to create a road commission to charge property owners where the infrastructure is located, similar to the fee he and 14,152 other levee-protected property owners pay to maintain the flood-control system along the Susquehanna River.
“You don’t want to support my levee. I don’t want to support your roads,” he said.
Citizen George Jendrey said he distrusts and questions any program linked to the state transportation department.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.