Council might consider referendum on city services
JANESVILLE Two Janesville City Council members want to ask residents on the April ballot whether the council should reduce services or be allowed to raise taxes.
Council members are expecting difficult budget issues for 2014.
Levy limits gave the council little flexibility for 2013, so it used about $900,000 in reserves to maintain service levels. Property taxes declined slightly, but garbage fees rose $14.
Two members opposed the 2013 budget when the council voted on it Nov. 26, calling the use of reserves unsustainable.
Even council members who supported the budget agreed that such major use of reserves must stop.
Now, council members Jim Farrell and Sam Liebert want to ask residents for direction.
“Before I go and start cutting the heck out of next year’s budget, I’d like to know if we have more revenue coming in,” Farrell said.
According to state law, a city can increase its levy over that from the previous year by only the percentage increase in equalized value from new construction.
The levy limit does not apply to money the city spends to pay off debt.
Residents can override the limit with a referendum.
Liebert and Farrell say they expect to discuss the issue at a January meeting.
City Manager Eric Levitt said staff has started researching a referendum at the council members’ request. He said he would meet with Farrell and Liebert next week.
“I think, before it gets on the agenda, we need to understand exactly what the request is for review … We need to look at all alternatives to both spending reductions as well as any levy limit increase (expected in the 2014 budget). I think it will be tough, and we need to continue to look at all alternatives,” Levitt said.
Farrell said the referendum would allow taxpayers to tell the council what they want the council to do.
“It doesn’t mean that I would support (increased taxes),” Farrell said. “I’m merely stating that the taxpayers, as they have done in other places, should be able to vote on that.”
Farrell said he would be reluctant to reduce services and make Janesville a less attractive place to live. He believes the city should spend more on street upkeep and police. He would like to see a downtown festival on the river.
“Being a former controller, I do realize there could be some places in the future budget where we would have to make more severe cuts. It might be in terms of park maintenance,” he said.
“But I’m very reluctant to cut police or fire,” Farrell said. “And that’s a huge percentage of our budget.”
Using reserves or raising taxes are the only options to maintain services, Farrell said.
Any referendum would clearly state how the extra money would be spent, he added.
Liebert said: “If people want to maintain the current police, fire, EMTs, trash pickup—all the wonderful things that local governments do—there’s a price attached to that.”
Other departments have already been cut, Liebert said, and public safety makes up more than half the budget.
The referendum would let voters decide, he said.
If it fails, that’s the go-ahead to cut services, Liebert added.
“This is a decision for the people,” he said. “I don’t think the council can make it.”
Councilman Matt Kealy voted against the 2013 budget. He said he would have to look at the proposed referendum’s language to decide whether he would vote to include it on the April ballot.
Candidates who were elected in April said they would take a tough look at the budget, and Kealy doesn’t believe that happened.
He noted a majority of the council did not support Kealy’s request to Levitt to find $150,000 in cuts out of a $40 million budget.
“I feel we should have started the work already,” Kealy said.
“If we put it to referendum, the majority of (residents) would vote ‘no,’” he predicted, meaning they would oppose additional spending.
Council members might need a referendum to tell them to live within their means, stop borrowing from reserves and stop delaying the hard decisions, he said.
“I believe most people on the streets want us to work harder to continue to look at the budget before we resort to exceeding the levy,” Kealy said.