Janesville councilmen want to raise $2.5 million for public safety, streets

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staff, Gazette
Friday, January 11, 2013

— Two council members want to ask local voters whether they support higher taxes to maintain police and fire services and improve street maintenance.

Councilmen Sam Liebert and Jim Farrell asked that the council Monday discuss putting two referendum questions on the April ballot. If voters approve, the council could raise up to $2.5 million in additional revenue.

One referendum would ask taxpayers for $1 million to maintain police and fire services. That comes to about $31 a year for the owner of the average home assessed at $120,100.

The second question would seek approval to raise an additional $1.5 million to maintain streets. That would cost the average homeowner about $46 a year.

Voters could say "yes" to one question, both or neither.

At least one council member, Matt Kealy, doesn't believe the council has explored all other options, including cuts in services and contracting for services.

The council is limited in raising revenue because the state caps levy increases at the value of new construction in the previous year. At the same time, the state has cut shared revenues to the city by $1 million since 2009.

To maintain services, council members in the last three years raised garbage fees and instituted a wheel tax. The council also took money from reserves, including $1 million in 2013.

Additionally, the council has borrowed for street maintenance since 2007. The state does not limit borrowing.

Some council members have warned that borrowing adds to the total cost of maintenance by adding interest. A new council policy, unless superceded by a super majority vote, allows $950,000 in borrowing for streets each year.

City Manager Eric Levitt said the staff cannot make a recommendation on a referendum.

"However, we are challenged in meeting certain operational and capital needs," Levitt said.

For example, the city should be paving 14 miles of road per year but is only doing about four to six miles, he noted.

Additionally, public safety makes up about 60 percent of the general fund.

The state levy caps came in the middle of a recession, Levitt said.

"There is very little construction activity, which limits the amount cities are able to increase their tax levies. At the same time, cities have seen dramatic nonproperty-tax revenue declines, particularly shared revenues from the state of Wisconsin and interest earnings on general investments."

Past and present councils have not levied to the limit, he said. Taxes paid on the average home to support the general fund have increased an average of $4.89 per year, or .61 percent, the last five years.

Farrell said he and Liebert narrowed the referendum to public safety, which is a top priority, and streets. The council wouldn't have to use any or all of the additional taxing authority but would have greater flexibility in writing future budgets, he said.

The money for street maintenance would allow the council to reduce borrowing. The council could not find $1 million in the existing budget to adopt a pay-as-you-go system.

"I think all of us would agree that reducing our (borrowing) would be a good thing," Farrell said. "We feel this is giving the citizens of the city some input whether they want to go that route."

Increasing taxes also would leave reserves intact.

The referendum would generate public discussion, said Farrell, who doesn't see a downside to asking residents what they prefer.

Farrell said he's not precluding future cuts, but the potential is limited.

"We're not going to find $750,000 or a million in cuts. I don't think that's possible unless we're cutting back on services like police and fire."

Kealy asked last year that Levitt find $150,000 in cuts in the proposed 2013 budget. The majority of the council did not back the request.

Kealy is reluctant to go the referendum route, especially for police and fire, because he doesn't know where the $1-million figure came from.

"I think we can maintain the current service levels by some cuts," Kealy said.

"Janesville is a nice community, and I don't think people need to be concerned that we're going to get to any level that it would not be safe," he said.

Kealy is interested in public comment about streets because the council needs to find a solution on maintenance other than continued borrowing, he said.

The bottom line is that the council was elected to make decisions, he said.

"They're not always easy decisions, and I think the referendum is passing the buck," he said.

"You've still got avenues to find the funding, and I'll fight to do it."

Last updated: 8:04 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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