Lehigh Valley

Lehigh County debates potential $5 vehicle fee

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - What does five bucks buy? In Lehigh County, a healthy helping of political debate.

A first reading of a potential new county $5 vehicle registration fee bill during Wednesday night's commissioners meeting caused a mild verbal fracas between some county commissioners and county Executive Tom Muller.

The bill has two components. One is that it would leverage the proceeds from the $5 fee the county would collect from registered vehicles and then take that money, and $2 million incentive from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for passing the bill,  into a matching grant program for municipalities - boroughs, townships and cities - that would have to be spent on transportation improvements, such as road and bridge improvements, over a three-year period.

The second component of the bill, according to the document before commissioners Wednesday night, is that the county will "use the majority of the funds to support debt service for a $20 million bond issue, which will be distributed as matching fund grants to the municipalities."

Commissioner Dan Hartzell, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the fee would give the county another $1.5 million annually. The county would then borrow the $20 million and use the fee money to pay off the debt.

Hartzell said it would be hard for a motorist to argue "gee, I can't afford it" considering all the other costs - purchasing a vehicle, insurance, repairs and fuel - associated with driving. The minor increase would result in safer roads and bridges for all county residents.

Commissioner Michael Schware disagreed, saying it takes "two bad ideas" and make them a law. He also maintained the "fee" was actually a "tax hike" on Lehigh County residents.

"I hope to God we vote it down," Schware said.

Commissioner Brad Osborne was upset about what he called "a lack of transparency" in how the Muller administration introduced the bill to the legislative body. Osborne, who is running for executive as a Republican, said commissioners didn't even know about the bill before they "read about it in the media."

Muller then spoke to commissioners about the bill, dismissing opposing comments from residents and commissioners as "alternative reality."

"This is a way to make something happen," Muller said. He added municipalities had greater need for this money than the county did. More important, it was the responsibility of the county to provide safe roads and bridges for county residents. "This makes a significant impact," he said of the proposed legislation.

Chairman Marty Nothstein indicated that he would support the legislation.

Should the bill become law, motorists would pay the fee when they register their vehicles with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Commissioners David Jones and Percy Dougherty were absent from Wednesday night's meeting.

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