Our Views: Janesville should raise wheel tax to fix its streets

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Boosting the city of Janesville's wheel tax by up to $38 annually to better keep up with street repairs is a painful but worthy idea.

As much as we hate to see new or increasing taxes and fees, this one makes sense. The city council should consider it when it meets in a budget study session at 6 Thursdayat City Hall.

This city has a history of frugal fiscal management. State-imposed caps on property taxes, however, leave Janesville struggling to keep up with infrastructure needs. Sure, the city could keep borrowing money and spreading the hit to property taxes across more years, as it has done of late, but that means spending more on interest. Taxes sunk into interest payments don't provide a dime's worth of service.

At least the wheel tax—now $10 and earmarked for roadwork—is tied to motorists who use and beat up the streets.

Janesville is not alone. Streets, highways and bridges are crumbling in many municipalities, as well as statewide and across the nation, at a time when repair costs are escalating. This looming problem will only grow worse if we don't sink sufficient money into upkeep.

Keeping infrastructure in good repair is a crucial city council responsibility. Many drivers bemoan conditions of some streets in Janesville. The city was growing and adding streets a couple of decades ago, and those roads now need resurfacing to ward off more extensive reconstruction as they deteriorate further.

The city's proposed budget includes $1 million in borrowing and tapping about $1 million in general-fund revenue for street work. That won't match the needs. In fact, Councilman Douglas Marklein argued in Wednesday's Gazette, “The route we're on, we're not gaining. We're losing.”

Public Works Director Carl Weber recommends doubling that amount to $4 million. He says about 31 miles of the city's 254 miles of streets are in poor or failed condition, and that number would more than double within three years at the current funding pace.

Tapping property taxes for that much cash would hurt other services. Each $10 increase in the wheel tax raises more than $500,000. A bump in the tax for three years of nearly $40 per vehicle would help the city avoid excessive borrowing and interest costs that otherwise might total nearly $800,000 in the next 12 years.

After those three years, Weber suggests, the wheel tax could be scaled back or continued for other street work. We seldom see taxes or fees, once enacted or increased, rolled back but hope this one could be someday.

No solution is simple. The city, however, cannot keep lagging in street repair.

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