Our views: Referendum on road work makes sense

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Janesville City Council has debated for years how to pay for roads.
All the while, the city’s roads have continued to deteriorate.
Public Works Director Carl Weber has said the city should fix 12 miles of road a year. This year, it budgeted to repair only 6.5 miles.
What’s the city to do? It could borrow money and pay interest through the years for what amounts to an operational expense.
That doesn’t seem prudent.
Raising taxes to pay for the roads is another option, but that isn’t as simple as getting the council’s approval. State levy limits cap the amount the city can tax, and it can boost property tax revenues by only about $200,000 a year.
That’s not nearly enough to get the roads up to speed. The estimated additional cost is $6 million over the next three years.
At a meeting Tuesday, the council discussed a new approach that is worth considering: a referendum asking residents to allow the city to exceed its levy limit to pay for road improvements.
Some see referendums as copouts by officials unwilling to make tough decisions. That doesn’t fit in this case. Even if it’s willing to make the hard choice, the council can’t raise taxes beyond the state-imposed limit without the public’s approval.
It only makes sense to let the public weigh in. This issue won’t go away, so it’s time to get serious about a fix. One way or another, residents will have to pay. These are big dollars, and the sentiments of voters should play into the council’s decision.
Granted, the city shouldn’t approve a big tax increase or borrowing for roads unless it’s confident that the rest of its operations and projects are as efficient and cost-effective as possible. Can significant money be found elsewhere and shifted to roads? Can services be cut or eliminated? Have big-ticket capital items been reviewed and vetted and all options for responsible cost cutting considered?
When it’s at that point, though, the council still likely will face a tough call to pay for roadwork. Of all of the services that a city provides, keeping the roads in good shape is among the basic. Residents expect well-maintained and well-plowed streets. That’s what taxes are for.
A referendum could be ready for voters in August if the city can make a decision soon enough and meet state notice requirements. Such a vote likely wouldn’t provide a clear path, but it could help the council finally make a decision on the best way to pay for ongoing street maintenance.

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