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$1.2 million Janesville street referendum headed for ballot

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Neil Johnson
August 26, 2014

JANESVILLE—Janesville residents will see a referendum on the November ballot asking them for $1.2 million a year to help remedy the city's faltering street maintenance program.

In a 6-1 vote Monday, the city council OK'd a resolution for a referendum question that would allow the city to tax residents beyond state-imposed levy limits as part of a plan to catch up on street repairs and stay caught up.

The extra taxing authority would sunset in half the time originally proposed.    

A recommendation forwarded by city staff asked for a 10-year sunset, but council members Monday cropped that to $1.2 million each year for five years.

Council members who support the referendum said Monday a five-year sunset could be more palatable for voters who Aug. 12 helped shoot down a multimillion-dollar Blackhawk Technical College referendum.

That referendum did not have a sunset, and officials have acknowledged that might have been the main reason it failed.

City Finance Director Tim Allen said a 10-year referendum would give the city time to evaluate the street repair plan.

City council member Matt Kealy said the failed Blackhawk Tech referendum soured him on the idea of asking voter permission to tax more for so many years. He said he'd be amenable to a blend of borrowing and referendum spending if an earlier sunset would fare better with voters.

“If we want to put some of it (repairs) on borrowing, I can live with it,” Kealy said. “But I'd like to put out a referendum that will pass. Five years is more likely to pass than 10 years.”

Council member Doug Marklein said he thought a five-year referendum was “more realistic” than a 10-year plan, but he cautioned other council members that it could take a few budget cycles for the city to add significant extra miles to its street maintenance schedule.  

Marklein said he believes it could take the city 25 years to catch up on street repairs. He's concerned a five-year referendum might not show taxpayers enough progress, making it difficult to launch a second referendum if needed. 

The council was under the gun to move on the referendum because Wednesday is the deadline to for any local governing body to submit to the Rock County clerk referendum questions for the November ballot.

The council has had workshops with city staff about how to shore up the city's street maintenance program. The city has fallen behind in street repairs, steadily dipping from about 12 miles of street repairs in 2008 to six miles in each of the last few years.

City officials blame a shortage of shared revenue, state-imposed levy caps and price spikes in asphalt and curb and gutter.

The city has over 200 miles of street, and 30 miles are in “poor,”  “very poor” or “nearly failed” condition, according to city analysis that's based on state road grading standards.

If the streets referendum is approved by voters, it would give the city $1.2 million a year to augment a $10 wheel tax that reels in about $550,000 a year.

The wheel tax, officials said, is not enough to cover the 10 to 12 miles of streets the city would like to fix each year. The city this year may be able to increase the tax levy by only $267,000 because of state-imposed caps. 

The $1.2 million annual increase would mean paying $36.82 more in city taxes next year for the owner of a $120,000 home, according to a city memo.

If the referendum fails, the city might need to borrow about $6 million over the next three years to get caught up with street work.

One council member, Mark Bobzien voted against the referendum, saying he thinks the city should immediately borrow $1.2 million to augment street repairs.

He said he believes the referendum—regardless of whether it's a five-year or 10-year spending plan—won't fare well with voters.

A male resident, one of a handful who spoke Monday on the referendum, said he supported the ballot question, but he said residents might want some clear ground rules.

He suggested the city establish rules to keep all current street funding in place and not pull street funds for other spending. He said the city should use referendum money for repairs only, not for building new streets or sewers.

He also suggested the city focus first on repairing some of the oldest streets in the city.



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