SUNBURY - A $5 per vehicle registration fee can be implemented by counties across the state starting in 2015, but it appears unlikely that will happen in Northumberland County.

Asked about the fee this week, all three commissioners seemed in agreement that taxpayers have enough of a burden without a new tax, no matter how small.

While the state's $2.3 billion transportation bill, passed in November, authorizes the fee, counties are not forced to impose it.

In Northumberland County, it could generate a half-million dollars.

PennDOT records show there were 99,066 passenger cars, trucks and other vehicles registered in the county in 2012 and 98,371 in 2011. At that, the county could have collected $495,330 in 2012 and $491,855 in 2011.

Tempting as that may be, "Why should we have another layer of taxes?" asked Commissioner Stephen Bridy. "Owning a vehicle used to be a privilege and luxury; now it's a necessity, especially in rural Pennsylvania where we live."

"Right now, I have to say no until I evaluate it more,"

Chairman Vinny Clausi said this week after being told about the fee. "I don't want to charge the people $5."

Richard Shoch said he can't see hitting people with an additional tax when the county is doing fine in maintaining the 73 bridges it owns across its 36 municipalities.

Going up anyway

Vehicle owners will already be paying more for vehicle registration to generate money for the state's transportation infrastructure. The new law would go up in 2015 by about $2, then rise in relation to an inflationary index from there.

Also, the governor's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission had estimated that gradually lifting the Oil Company Franchise Tax over five years, approved as part of the transportation bill, could increase the price of gas up to 28.5 cents per gallon.That will be offset in part by the elimination of a 12 cents-a-gallon liquid fuels tax.

A small number of vehicles would be exempt from fees if they are associated with certain nonprofit organizations.

More always needed

In this year's $68.5 million county budget, $2.1 million is reserved for maintaining county-owned bridges, paying the employees who work on them and contracting companies for major repairs and winter snow removal. The money is fully funded through the state Liquid Fuels account, and no local taxpayer money from the general fund goes into it.

But county engineer Chuck Hopta said it's not enough, and the county must save money in that account year to year in order to fund larger projects.

For example, the county is planning a total deck replacement on a bridge in Washington Township, estimated to cost between $150,000 and $180,000. But there is also a need to replace a bridge in Delaware Township at a cost of $800,000 and rehabilitate a steel plate girder on a bridge in Rockefeller Township at a cost of $400,000, he said.

While he's not advocating the county implement the fee, Hopta said the money could be used.

"We could spend it," he said. "We have other projects we could do, but we can't because of the funding stream."

Bridy and Shoch said they would not be in favor of using the fee to generate more income unless it's "absolutely needed" and Hopta specifically requests it.

Bridy said he does recognize the fee as a way to have those who don't own properties contribute more tax revenue.

Gordner: Up to counties

State Sen. John R. Gordner, (R-27), who was closely involved in developing the transportation plan, said the optional fee was not included in the original Senate Bill 1 that was passed last June, but was included in the final bill signed by the governor.

As the lone tool for counties to use at their disposal, the fee was one of nearly three dozen recommendations by the independent advisory commission. Gordner said he doesn't have a preference on the optional fee.

"I will leave it up to each county for what makes the most sense to them," he said.

Although he has not heard from any leaders in his district who plan to enact the fee come Jan. 1, he said such discussions could occur as the time draws nearer.

(Times-Shamrock Staff Writer Kyle Wind contributed to this report.)