Janesville City Council ponders $1.2 million street-repair referendum

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Neil Johnson
Thursday, August 21, 2014

JANESVILLE—The city's inability to raise enough money to keep up with needed street repairs, is prompting the city council to consider a $1.2 million referendum for street work. 

That's the gist of a city of Janesville city street repair referendum question the city council is taking up Monday.

City staff is asking the council to OK a referendum question for the November ballot that would ask taxpayers to approve up to $1.2 million in spending above and beyond the city's state-imposed levy limit.      

The increase, which would be in addition to a $10 wheel tax, would mean a $36.82 increase on next year's city tax bill for a resident with a $120,000 home, according to a city memo from Finance Director Tim Allen.   

The spending referendum has a 10-year sunset clause, meaning it would tap an extra $1.2 million each year over a nine-year span between 2015 and 2024.

That span, city officials say, would give the city time to learn to evaluate the success of the referendum, and a street repair plan tied to it, officials say.

And, officials say, the span of the referendum would be vital help the city hit its mark on a plan that would catch the city up on a street repair program that the public works department says has been falling behind since at least 2008.

The city council has gone through workshops this year, seeking ways to boost street repairs to cover up to 12 miles a year on its 250-mile grid.

That's how much street surface the city believes needs to be repaired each year to catch up—and keep up—on a grid that has at least 110 miles in “fair” condition, and at least 30 miles that by state grading standards are in “poor,” “very poor” or nearly “failed” condition, according to city records.

 In recent years, including this year, the city has only budgeted repairs for between 6 and 6.5 miles of street per year.

The city blames dwindling street work on skyrocketing asphalt costs and curb and gutter costs. In addition, there is a shortage of cash for such capital improvement projects as street repair. Together, those two forces  are placing many municipalities under budget pressure.

Under current budget forecasts detailed by Allen, Janesville miight only be able to increase its tax levy $267,000 for the upcoming 2015 budget, based on state-imposed levy limits.

The only way under law that cities can boost their tax revenue beyond levy limits is through a referendum to exceed the cap.

It leaves the city and the council to grapple with how to find millions the city needs to fund repairs.

One alternative the city has touched on would be to borrow $6 million over three years in a catch-up program that would bring streets up to “acceptable levels.”

That could be one option the city would turn to if the referendum was defeated.

The referendum is the first the city has floated in many years, and it comes up at a time when some analysts believe the economy is emerging from a long recession.

But it's also at a time when the city has other big-ticket projects simmering. For one, the city is moving ahead on plans to build a new, $9 million central fire station, despite petitions that aim to block it.

The city has also finished a new transit station that cost $1.6 million. 

One council member, Douglas Marklein, called those projects “separate” issues.

A multi-million dollar spending referendum to fuel operations at Blackhawk Technical College took was rejected in the primary election earlier this month, with 60 percent of Janesville voters shooting it down.

But officials at the college blamed that loss on the fact that it lacked a sunset. The city streets referendum, on the other hand, would sunset after a decade.  

City officials point to one possible saving grace in the cost of needed street work: A large glut of repairs the city anticipates will clog its city's to-do list are streets built in the 1990s, during a residential construction boom.

According to a city memo, those streets have never been resurfaced, and costs to handle them would be significantly less than streets that have been patched and resurfaced multiple times.

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