Our Views: Will Janesville residents pay more to fix streets or take their lumps?

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

On Nov. 4, residents who criticize Janesville’s street conditions will have a chance to open their wallets as well as their mouths.

The city council agreed Tuesday to ask voter permission to exceed the state’s levy limit every year starting in 2015 to pay for street repairs. Jay Winzenz, outgoing director of administrative services, told The Gazette it would be about $1.2 million annually.

A referendum makes sense on many levels. But whether this plan—the ballot question has yet to be worded—paves the way to smoother streets remains to be seen.

No one argues the city shouldn’t pour more money into the basic service of keeping streets and bridges in good repair. Carl Weber, who just retired as public works director, said the city has been fixing between five and six miles of roads per year but should rebuild 12 miles to match maintenance needs.

Janesville sinks about $2.2 million per year into streets, curbs, gutters and sidewalks. The city borrows $950,000 of that. Winzenz says the city should spend $4.2 million—nearly double the current amount.

The city can’t tap property owners for that much more because state-imposed levy limits allow those taxes to rise only about $200,000 per year. The city could skirt the limit by borrowing all the extra dollars needed, but residents would pay even more through interest on the loans.

Other funding options might be even less palatable.

Few people like the wheel tax of $10 per vehicle, and it would have to climb much higher to help. At $10, it generates only about half a million dollars per year. Though some council members argue it’s regressive because it affects low-income residents the most, the tax does make those who beat up the roads share the repair costs. The council wisely voted 4-3 to keep the $10 fee.

Likewise, the council was smart to drop talk of assessing owners for repairs adjacent to their properties. After all, residents on heavily traveled streets would absorb repair costs more often.

Instead, the council is striking a reasonable balance by borrowing 40 percent of the needed dollars and going to referendum for the other 60 percent. If residents back the property tax increase, the owner of a home assessed at $120,000 would pay $30 more in 2015 and higher amounts in later years, a total of $833 from 2016 to 2026.

Critics who howl the city is spending too much on that big new bus garage—though federal dollars are paying 80 percent of construction costs—and a planned $9 million fire station wonder why those projects didn’t go to referendum but street repairs are.

Good questions.

But the city might face an even bigger pothole in convincing residents to tax themselves more for street repairs. That’s because the referendum would have no sunset clause. The city will be asking for more money not just for a few years or even 10 years but for every year into the future. Councilman Matt Kealy raised that concern but got ignored. Councilman Douglas Marklein pointed out the referendum would provide extra dollars needed for the first few years but the city probably will need even more down the road to match inflation.

That might be true, but funding options can change with political fortunes in Madison. Today’s levy limits might be tomorrow’s history. Without a sunset on the referendum question, residents might decide to take their lumps and force city fathers to find more ways to reduce spending elsewhere to pour more into pavement.

Gazette editorials express the views of the newspaper’s editorial board. Readers are encouraged to comment on editorials through letters to the editor.


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