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Janesville City Council candidates talk budget, jobs

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Marcia Nelesen
March 14, 2013

— Live within your means.

Most Janesville City Council candidates said that more than once Wednesday during a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Running for four open seats are incumbents Sam Liebert and DuWayne Severson. Challengers are Julie Broda, Brian Fitzgerald, Doug Marklein and Jerry Smythe.

The candidates were asked to list the top three issues facing the council.

All put jobs and improving the city's economy at No. 1.

But most—Fitzgerald, Smythe, Broda and Severson—said spending should be cut, as well.

Only Liebert said the city was working so lean it would be difficult to find savings in 2014. Marklein agreed but said the city could find savings by being more efficient.

"We need to have the city live within its means," said Severson, who has served on the council for a year.

Residents had to make adjustments to meet their daily needs over the last four to five years, and the city needs to do the same thing, he said.

The adjustments could be made over several years.

Severson said he believes residents are open to some reductions in services. They also want to make sure their taxes are spent wisely.

Any discussion about tax increases through referendums or fee increases should be stopped, he said.

Smythe agreed, saying the council must be a good steward of taxpayer dollars.

"We pay plenty in taxes and in fees, in my estimation," Smythe said.

The city must stop taking money from it reserves to pay its bills and be careful with its deficit spending and borrowing money, he said. The city must start living within its means before it faces a budget crisis, he said.

Broda said the city must cut nonessential expenses and use cost-efficient measures without making cuts to the essential services residents are accustomed to.

Marklein said the council must assess the budget for needs and wants and find "true value for taxpayers."

Residents might want to pay a "little bit more" if they see where the money goes and that it is not wasted on things residents don't need, he said.

Fitzgerald said a lot of hard work would go into scrutinizing the 2014 budget so the city can continue providing high-quality services in light of a predicted shortfall. He did not suggest raising taxes to do so.

Liebert said the city should ramp up its road maintenance and maintain its police and fire services. Liebert said that's why he recently asked the council to approve a referendum to ask residents to allow the council to spend more than state-imposed levy caps.

The proposal did not pass.

Candidates were asked to list three things they would cut to balance the budget.

Smythe said he wouldn't spend taxpayer money to build an animal shelter. He would freeze current staffing levels, look at restructuring debt to take advantage of low interest rates and consider selling some city assets, such as parkland.

He also suggested, small, across-the-board cuts—1 percent to 2 percent—for all departments.

Broda said she, too, prefers small, across-the-board cuts so every city office "has an opportunity to save" rather than large cuts in one program.

Fitzgerald said he would look closely at capital projects, many of which total millions of dollars.

"Projects like that, we have to look hard and long at," he said.

He, too, would look into restructuring debt at today's low interest rates.

"The question has to be, ‘What are we doing, and are we doing it the most efficient way?'" He said he is confident the city can meet residents' needs for less money than it spends now.

Marklein said the city staff already is "very lean."

"They're just as tight as can be, working very hard with short staff," Marklein said. He said he would find savings by finding efficiencies.

Marklein would study a program in which the city rehabs older housing and then resells it for less than was spent.

"The goal is admirable," he said. "I think the financing stinks."

Liebert said it is irresponsible for candidates to talk about things he or she would cut.

"Every year, it's circumstantial," he said. "The city is doing a lot more with a lot less."

The number of firefighters has not grown over 30 years, for example, he said.

"I think we already have a very lean budget."

Liebert said he would like to see the city get out of certain businesses, such as running its two golf courses and Oakhill Cemetery.

Cities are required by state law to take over the care of cemeteries if private entities no longer do so.

"There are some things the government does well, and some things they should not be involved with at all," Liebert said.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Bringing jobs to the community and improving the local economy was the top issue for all candidates.

"I think we've spent, quite frankly, way too much time talking about sidewalks and roundabouts," Fitzgerald said. "We need to get back to basics and talk about jobs."

Liebert said the council is doing all it can by aiding private/public partnerships and using tools available for job creation.

Broda said the city should aim for aggressive economic growth with the goal of developing skilled workers who bringing in living wagers.

Candidates were asked what they would do to spur job creation and economic growth.

"We need to remove some laws and restrictions that prevent new employers from moving here," Fitzgerald said.

The city must also be aggressive in working with existing local business. "They tend to get put on the back burner sometimes in the frenzy to attract new business," he said.

The city must get creative in its approach to attract business because it is competing with other cities, he said.

Severson, too, said the city must look at rules and regulations that might prevent a company from coming to Janesville. One way to attract people and business to a community is by creating a vibrant downtown, he said.

Economic development downtown would bring jobs, Smythe agreed.

"We need to do whatever we can as a community to make Janesville more receptive for new jobs, new employers," Smythe said, including tax incentives.

Broda said she supports tax incentives as long as they are used appropriately.

She also said she will work with representatives in Madison to find grants and modify some policies to make it easier for businesses to come to Janesville.

Marklein predicted Janesville would mostly grow from "the inside out," with the majority of job creation coming from businesses already in Janesville. He lauded the new Janesville Innovation Center.

Said Marklein: "What Janesville needs is a vision—where it is going to be in five, 10 years from now—and work toward that vision." The city needs to invest in Janesville's future and its infrastructure so others invest in the city, he said.

Liebert said Gov. Scott Walker must include the Interstate 90/39 expansion in the state budget. He said he hoped the political turmoil in Madison is over so legislators there start working with cities to help them become friendly places for business.

Tax incentives are a great tool, he said.



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