Amish on road maintenance: ‘Let’s do our share’

Staff Writer

    More than 100 Amish men, many of them bishops in their church, along with a handful of members from the English community, attended a public informational session at the Berne Senior Center Monday night on the possible implementation of a wheel tax in Adams County.
    For nearly 45 minutes the standing-room-only crowd listened attentively as county officials, led by Commission Chairman Doug Bauman and Council President Eric Orr, laid out why the county is considering a wheel tax and how its passage could affect the Amish community.
    Bauman explained there are approximately 700 miles of roads in Adams County and keeping them maintained is an expensive proposition. It costs an average of $100,000 per mile to chip and seal a gravel road and about the same to wedge and level a road with an asphalt base, he said. To chip and seal over a paved road runs $8,000-10,000 per mile. Clearly, “road maintenance costs a lot of money.”
    “What we’re looking at here is infrastructure for Adams County that will take care of our grandkids,” Bauman said.
    Pat Conner, a research manager for the Indiana Local Technical Assistance Program at Purdue University, explained that in determining how to fund and maintain roads and bridges, the state legislature determined to provide up to $1 million in matching funds to counties who pass a wheel tax.
    He clarified that what is commonly referred to as a wheel tax is actually two different taxes: a wheel tax and an excise surtax. The excise surtax applies to passenger vehicles, motorcycles, motorbikes and trucks weighing less than 11,000 pounds. The wheel tax applies to larger vehicles like semis, buses, recreational vehicles and trailers.
    “You pay one or the other. Nobody pays both taxes,” Conner said, adding that by law, both taxes must be enacted together. While the state has created a range of highs and lows for those tax rates, counties are free to set their own rates within those parameters, he said.
    Orr focused the tax discussion more clearly.
    “Nobody wants to run for office and pass a new tax,” he said. “It seems as though the policy down at the Statehouse is to defer more of these hard political issues to local people to make this decision. So what’s happened is, we’ve received some basic threats that, if you don’t pass this wheel tax, we’re not going to give you as much money.”
    Highway Superintendent Lonnie Caffee earlier noted more than $1.5 million in state funding his department used to receive “that we no longer get. Those monies have stopped. They’ve dried up,” he said.
    Both Caffee and Bauman reported that when they ask state officials about highway maintenance funding, the answer is, “What have you done to help yourself? There’s a wheel tax for that,’” Caffee said.
    “And, ‘have you implemented it to its fullest extent?’” Bauman added.
    Orr stated that since “a wheel tax does not apply to buggies,” the county is strongly considering raising the cost of buggy plate fees to ensure “everybody is paying their fair share.” A primary purpose of the meeting, he said, was to allow Amish resident an opportunity to express their opinions as to how that goal might best be accomplished.
    County Attorney Mark Burry explained that the county commissioners are responsible for establishing buggy plate fees, which he said haven’t increased since 2009. “The annual fee is $60 per plate, so if you have three buggies, you should have three plates. You all use the roads just like we do,” he said.
    In addition to increasing buggy plate fees, Burry indicated the county might also consider an axle sticker that uses a county-issued buggy identification number, similar to a VIN number, which is then mirrored on the buggy plate. According to Caffee, the county averages approximately 2,100 buggy plate sales per year, raising about $127,000.
    When Orr finally asked for questions or comments from the audience, there was a protracted silence before an Amish gentleman near the front of the room first asked by how much the cost of buggy plates might increase. Orr answered that an evaluation was needed to determine an equitable increase.
    Comments that suggested buggy plates are switched to avoid full compliance did not sit well with several members of the Amish community. “It makes us look really bad. I don’t mind paying taxes. I really don’t. We’re not freeloaders,” one man said. Another admitted that while he had three buggies, he only buys plates for two because he doesn’t use the third. Others felt that county officials could be more helpful in their dealings with the Amish.
    However, the general consensus of the Amish in attendance appeared to be in favor of an increase in buggy plates in lieu of the addition of a buggy identification number and axle sticker.
    One member of the Amish contingent seemed to sum up the opinions of many of those in attendance.
    “I appreciate my local government. I really do. And I want to thank the highway department. I looked at my clock already at 2 o’clock in the morning and they was clearing the road (of snow) for me. We got to look at that, too,” said John Graber.
    “And we got to look down (county) road triple zero and we can plainly see them troughs going down there. And we know it’s the horses,” he added.
    “I am a man; I have one insurance company, and that’s God in Heaven. I have one attorney, and that’s Jesus Christ. I’m a firm believer in it. That’s the way I feel. But the thing is, our government is elected. And I’m thankful for my government. In Adams County, we have a lot of freedom, and I personally would rather see the plates go up rather than the VIN, and I tell you why.
    “How I believe is my choice. And how I believe, I realize any more, is almost a burden to today’s society. Face it. But I still believe firmly and I’m not condemning nobody. The point is, I’m so thankful for the government we have, we ought to thank and help. What is it that you want? And we know what it is, it’s more money. They need more money. And let’s do our share,” he said.
    “I’d rather see my plates double than go with the VIN number, because I’m afraid someday they’re gonna make me sign an insurance policy, and I can’t do that. Then I’m afraid your jail is gonna fill up and you’ll have to expand it further,” he concluded.