Opening license fee increase to referendum an unnecessary risk

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Portage County commissioners took a step in the right direction by hiking license plate fees to provide a new source of revenue for road repairs and bridge upkeep, but they didn't go far enough. They should have approved the measure on an emergency basis, which would have prevented it from being repealed by a referendum action.

The fee hike will raise license plate costs by up to $10, which will generate up to $700,000 in new revenue for the Portage County engineer's office, which plans to earmark the money to improve roads and bridges. That will almost double the engineer's capital improvements budget, assuming the hike is able to take effect as planned on Jan. 1.

Portage County roads are in bad shape because there isn't enough money to repair them. Only 16 percent of county roads are rated as being in "good" condition. County Commissioner Kathleen Chandler says that "is really a disgrace to us and a safety hazard," and we agree with her assessment.

Bridges are in poor condition, too. Some are so direly in need of repair or replacement that they have load limitations that prevent them from being used by school buses, fire trucks and other safety vehicles. Again, the county's resources for fixing bridges are inadequate to the task.

We believe that County Engineer Michael Marozzi made a good case that an infrastructure emergency exists, and we are disappointed that the board of commissioners was unable to cast the unanimous vote needed to approve emergency legislation. In failing to do so, the board missed an opportunity to show leadership, we believe.

The boost in license plate charges is a users' fee, and a modest one at that. The returns, in terms of a stable source of funding for the county engineer, far outweigh the minimal cost involved. A $10 fee hike amounts to less than a quarter per week, which isn't an undue burden for anyone.

County residents who live in Kent, Mantua, Hiram and Windham already are paying that fee, which was enacted by their local officials without a vote by the electorate. None of the money from their fees goes to the county.

Decent roads and bridges are a safety issue and a quality of life issue. They also are an economic development issue; employers considering relocation aren't going to come to a county where the roads are like tank traps and fire trucks can't use bridges.

The last time county commissioners approved a license plate hike -- again, on a non-emergency basis -- was in the late 1990s. A referendum ensued and it was soundly thrashed at the polls. Leaving the new fee up to the voters runs the same risk, a needless one that could have been avoided by an emergency clause.

We hope history doesn't repeat itself. But if a referendum surfaces, we hope that representatives of townships, schools and fire departments are prepared to fight back to keep this funding source on the books. The roads aren't going to get better without this money and the bridges aren't going to fix themselves.

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