Janesville voters shoot down $1.2 million streets referendum


JANESVILLE—Officials say the city of Janesville will have to find ways to shore up its sagging street repair program in coming months, but support won’t come through a boost in the tax levy.

By a wide margin, voters shot down a $1.2 million street repair referendum in Tuesday's election, with nearly every ward in the city voting overwhelmingly against the measure.

The referendum asked voters for permission for the city to exceed the state tax levy cap by up to $1.2 million annually for five years to fund an expanded street repair plan.

The plan was to use the extra money to boost the number of miles of streets the city would fix from recent repair schedules of six miles a year to as many as 12 miles a year over the next five years.

Although the referendum had broad support from the city council, it got crushed in the voting booth Tuesday, with more than 60 percent of voters against it. 

That leaves the council in a tough spot because public works officials have warned that about 10 percent of the city’s 250 miles of streets are in “poor” to “failed” condition, based on state paving standards.

The city estimates that under current funding levels for street repairs, about 22 percent of city streets will be in “poor” or “failed” condition by 2016.

Council President DuWayne Severson said he doesn’t think voters were ready for a referendum.

“We'll have to work as a council to see what our next step is. We have to have the roads fixed. We have to keep street repairs at the levels we’re hearing residents and taxpayers want,” Severson said.

City Manager Mark Freitag has said options include borrowing, a change in the $10 city wheel tax, fund balance spending or a special assessment.

What’s not clear is how much taxpayers want the city to spend on streets. The extra boost to the levy would have cost taxpayers about $36 a year for a five-year span between 2015 and 2019.

Some voters Tuesday said the referendum question confused them because they weren’t sure why the city wanted extra tax money.

The city chose not to highlight the referendum’s purpose—street repairs—on the ballot. Instead, the referendum question simply asked voters for $1.2 million extra in tax money for five years, with no reference to street work.

“I didn’t know what it was about. It (the question) didn’t say,” resident Patricia Prather said Tuesday evening after voting at First Lutheran Church on East Milwaukee Street.

“I read the question three times, and I couldn’t figure it out. So I just voted no,” Prather said.

Council Vice President Sam Liebert said the vote doesn’t make it clear what options residents would want for street repairs.

“What does it mean? People don’t want their street fixed? Are they OK with the city going ahead and borrowing money to catch up on those extra miles? Could we try the referendum again in the spring? We have a lot of questions to ask ourselves.”

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