Eight in the running for Janesville City Council
Three incumbents—Frank Perrotto, Russ Steeber and George Brunner—will face five challengers—Deb Dongarra-Adams, K. Andreah Briarmoon, Mike Knilans, Billy McCoy and Sam Liebert—in the April 5 election.
Incumbent Bill Truman is not seeking re-election.
The candidates answered the following questions:
Q: The city must decide how much to spend to renovate its aging ice arena, with estimates ranging from about $1.3 million for bare bones work to about $3 million for more amenities. How much do you think the city should spend?
Briarmoon: The folks who use the ice rink need to figure this out. Let them. They did a fundraiser—where is that money? Otherwise, is putting the rink on ice until the economy improves not an option to be explored? And does the whole city need to own this thing?
Brunner: With the budget problems facing the city, a new ice arena will probably not be built within the next 10 years. The city has $1.9 million set aside for repair and renovation of the arena, and I favor spending no more than that. That amount would likely provide some enhancements to benefit the facility’s users and would extend the facility’s use for another 20 years.
The ice arena is the most utilized of all recreational facilities in the city with 60,000 participants annually. It has a low subsidy per participant. When more accurate cost estimates are known, the council will be better able to decide what should be done to keep the ice arena operating. I am also hoping that ice skating center supporters contribute funds to lower the city’s tax-dollar cost.
Dongarra-Adams: I have not heard back from all the parties that I have contacted, so I am not able to give an answer at this time. We need to remember a few things when deciding what to spend on the ice arena. First, that it is a fun, safe public place for kids and adults to congregate and participate in skating, hockey, etc. Secondly, Christine Rebout from the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau provided some numbers about the economic impact in from the Janesville Jets games and, I have to say, it is pretty impressive. I trust that we all would like to see that continue.
We must make sure the city gets its value with the renovation and that we can provide a quality amenity for our community and the surrounding communities.
Knilans: Our citizens should be part of this process. The ice arena services a narrow segment of our population and is not in a location to draw business. What does the city at large want to do?
Liebert: We should go ahead with the intermediate plan of all basic repairs and expanding the current facility, including the locker room, restrooms and showers. The cost of $1.3 million to $1.75 million is reasonable. I would like to revisit the issue down the road to include the long-term expansion, which would include more seating, parking and storage space.
McCoy: At this time, I think all that should be done is replace the ice-making system. In addition, the roof of the building must be replaced. I would recommend a steel roof for this repair because it will last longer.
Perrotto: My goal is to spend up to $2 million on repairs and renovation. We have already set this money aside for the project. We are waiting for a consultant’s report to provide more concrete estimates before moving forward.
Steeber: After the consultant’s report, the council will be able to decide a course of action and cost. The mid-option is the appropriate level at this time, keeping a possible expansion in mind when planning the renovations. That would mean doing the project in phases. Of all the recreation facilities that the city owns, the ice arena has the most use.
Q: Some council members are concerned about the city’s borrowing, especially for regular street maintenance. The practice adds interest payments to regular operating expenses, but reducing the borrowing would likely mean an increase in property taxes. What do you think about the city's level of borrowing in general and for street maintenance in particular?
Briarmoon: We pay taxes for street maintenance, snow removal, trash pickup, parks, police, fire and schools. Why would we need to borrow for those things, ever? Isn't everything else extra?
Why are we borrowing millions to pretend we are the personal bank for developers? Why are we borrowing millions to bulldoze our properties, which lowers our tax base, when we have zero blighted areas in the entire city? Millions for a bus garage, just to not lose out on matching funds?
Brunner: The current level of borrowing is generally acceptable with the city using a 10-year amortization period. I believe general fund borrowing should be limited for capital improvement projects and not for ongoing expenses.
The practice of borrowing for street maintenance began several years ago to balance the budget. Efforts must be made to limit the amount of borrowing in total and particularly for street maintenance. Because of the difficult economic environment, the council should consider incrementally shifting the borrowing for street maintenance back to the general fund. The council should also consider establishing a debt limit to manage debt reduction cost while maintaining the city’s bond rating.
Dongarra-Adams: I understand the concern regarding the city’s borrowing practices for regular street maintenance. While this is not a desirable practice, we need to maintain the quality of our streets.
I believe that we need to set priorities regarding what maintenance really must be done in a particular year and what maintenance issues could wait until next year. We could continue this method each year until the economy is strong again.
Knilans: If the council didn’t have the option of borrowing, maybe it would think more carefully on how to spend its money.
Liebert: The city must watch how it borrows money for projects. Perhaps the council should begin looking at other priorities in the budget and make street maintenance part of the overall budget.
With a debt of $127.7 million and growing, it’s time to slow down. Looking at caps on borrowing money may be a way to go. If the city continues down this path, we may find ourselves in a similar situation like so many other cities across Wisconsin and the country.
McCoy: Our property taxes are supposed to pay for repairs of our streets. City council members need to look closely at the bids they receive and determine how it will affect our residents long term.
Perrotto: Borrowing money is never the ideal solution for paying for anything. Sometimes borrowing makes sense—buying a home, for instance. For me, borrowing in a low-interest environment, like we are in, makes sense. The cost of funds is cheap relative to raising taxes.
The alternative to borrowing for street maintenance is raising taxes. That is not all bad. It just depends on the long-term impact and what makes the most sense for the city and the citizens of Janesville. A study session will be planned in the near future to review alternatives to borrowing, including street maintenance.
Steeber: I agree that borrowing money for repairs should not be the norm and until recent years has not occurred. The prudent approach would be to gradually wean the city from the practice and to fund street repairs only with property taxes and subsidized state and federal money. To do so all at once would place an undue burden on property taxpayers.
Given Gov. Walker’s proposed budget in which the city would not be able to increase property taxes above current rates, projects may have to be delayed rather than borrowing funds to cover the costs.
Parks and recreation
Q: Times are tough, and everybody is looking to cut any bit of fat. Do you consider parks and recreation programs as unnecessary subsidized programs or do they play an important role in the community, especially considering the tough times? Should the city sell some parks?
Briarmoon: This is obviously not the market in which to sell real estate. Now would be a good time to allow citizens to do volunteer work. The city could also temporarily defer use and maintenance of parks where it would not be life threatening so we could retain community ownership.
Brunner: Parks and recreation are important amenities to the city and are a central part to the quality of life enjoyed by residents. They also attract new residents to the community and aid economic development. The city must do what it can to maintain and support recreational programs for children and youth at affordable rates.
Fee structures for some adult programs may be areas where some of the overall recreational subsidy could be reduced. The sale of some parkland may be an option to reduce park maintenance costs but should only be considered after careful analysis of the location and use of the park. Volunteer friends programs to help maintain the park system should be promoted.
Dongarra-Adams: Parks and recreation programs play an important role in our community, and we need to prioritize the role as it relates to the city budget. We also need to take care of these amenities as they play roles in attracting new business to our community.
We should consider selling some parks and see what the outcome might be. It never hurts to look at all possibilities. We need to keep our minds open to what our options might be.
Knilans: Parks and recreation programs are not unnecessary subsidized programs. But the city should charge more for its programs and services and possibly make more of an effort to find sponsors. Selling parks is worth looking into. The level of maintenance could change for some.
Liebert: Janesville is considered the “City of Parks.” To sell off our parks would be an embarrassment and a disservice to the people of Janesville. Parks are part of our identity and are a big selling point to potential new families who want to live in Janesville. I would do my best when working with the budget and other council members to preserve these programs.
McCoy: These programs play an important role in our community. I don’t feel it would be beneficial to the community to get rid of them. I do not wish to sell the parks to better the financial situation of the city. Only in dire situations should this even become an option. After all, we are the “City of Parks.”
Perrotto: Amenities such as parks and recreational activities are an essential part of what makes Janesville a great city. Subsidies, though, should be at reasonable levels. In tough economic times, citizens must pay more because the city doesn’t have the resources to provide them at reduced levels.
I have been a strong proponent of looking at the parks that are underutilized and selling them. Last year alone we spent $l.4 million on park maintenance and upkeep.
Steeber: The city’s recreation programs help attract people to live and work here and bring tourists to visit our many fine parks and attractions. Cutting recreational programs could have a negative affect on the community.
Although I have adamantly opposed the sale of any park, the upcoming budget is unusual and filled with uncertainty. Having said that, all options must be on the table. An example of areas that could be considered could be property adjacent to the Northeast Regional Park or Rockport Park. These parks have many acres of undeveloped parkland that could be considered without dramatically altering their use.
Balancing the budget
Q: The city faces a budget shortfall. How would you balance it?
Briarmoon: Initiate ward/supervisor positions to get citizen input. Cut expenses and retain our quality of life by allowing and orchestrating the incredible citizen volunteer spirit in our community. Get back to basics.
Freeze foreclosures pending the completion of the robo-foreclosure national investigation so that we can freeze the avalanche of vacant homes onto the market that is currently dropping our tax base and thus our revenues.
Brunner: The city cannot continue on a path of spending, borrowing and using reserve fund balance dollars to balance the budget. Spending reductions will be necessary to balance the budget, possibly by limiting spending to 2008 or 2009 levels.
Limits on borrowing should be set to better manage the cost of borrowing over a 10-year amortization period. The city and council should evaluate the method of funding some city services, the accounting practices and fund transfers between departments. In addition, there are recreation and other activities that the city provides where participation fees are charged and where increases in some fees may be reasonable.
The city must continue its efforts in economic development, working to attract new investment into the city with commercial and industrial development to broaden the tax base. Economic development efforts are long term and will not immediately work to balance the budget but will positively impact future budgets.
Dongarra-Adams: With the economic downfall, I had to address the same dilemma in my own business. First, I looked at all of our fixed expenses. It was amazing what we saved by reducing those costs. When times are good, we sometimes have no idea what we are paying for and how much it cost.
My goal was to try to save jobs and not dip into the employees’ pockets. I have eight employees and we—including me—are now working four-day weeks. It was not an easy choice, but we all still have our jobs. I believe we need to take a hard look at the numbers, analyze all the facts and prioritize what needs to be done to balance the budget.
Knilans: I would ask for input from city staff to come up with a consensus of wants and needs. Create a budget, stick to it and don’t borrow from Peter to pay Paul.
Liebert: Balancing the budget is a team effort between council members and the city manager. The manager should first make recommendations and the council should weigh in. Raising taxes should not be the only answer when working to balance a budget. You have to be precise and use a scalpel and not an axe. It should be a process of possibly reducing current services and working with city workers to balance the budget.
McCoy: I would start with mandatory wage freezes for city administrators. If the wage freezes are not enough, I would look at possible wage decreases for city administrators.
Perrotto: There is no magic wand or easy fix to balancing budgets. It is always a delicate balance of raising revenues—taxes and fees—and lowering expenses—expenditure efficiencies and staffing. Lastly, when considering the loss of revenue, you must balance the value of services offered to our citizens. So unfortunately, cutting or reducing some services may also surface as a necessity.
Steeber: It is too early to determine how much the city will lose as Gov. Walker’s proposed budget has yet to be debated or passed. The 2012 budget will be a challenge to find ways to minimize the impacts on services but also keep property taxes as low as possible. The proposed budget mandates a zero percent increase in property taxes that does not even allow for the growth of inflation. There are no quick fixes to this problem, and it will take cooperation from all involved parties to achieve.