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Local
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After hearing Janesville city budget still includes wheel tax hike, new curb and gutter fees

JANESVILLE

Don’t look for any major changes to a 2022 city spending plan that some city staff and city council members have called a “maintenance budget.”

During a public hearing Monday, residents and the city council had just a few comments and questions about the city’s $53.2 million spending plan but no suggested last-minute amendments for a budget that is slated to come back to the council for a final vote Nov. 22.

Overall, the picture is much unchanged for city taxpayers compared to earlier estimates for the city’s tax levy and the total budget. Residents will see about a 3.8% increase in the overall tax levy and a $120 increase to what they pay to the city.

Most of that $120 increase will not be tied directly to residents’ property tax bills. Rather, that increase will be comprised mostly of an increase to $40 of the city’s wheel tax and an additional $35 or so a year residents would pay through a plan to charge back 100% of curb and gutter replacement fees to residents’ storm water bills.

City officials have said the fee hikes will help the city make good on its usual plan to tackle 12 miles of street repairs a year without having to increase borrowing. It also helped balance a city budget that staff had aimed to cap at 2021 levels.

But the cost increases come on top of emerging talk that the city could kick in millions of dollars for proposed new amenities, including an indoor ice arena and sports complex and a children’s museum.

On Monday, only one Janesville resident, Tom Lipinski, spoke up on the budget.

Lipinski at recent council meetings has urged the city to limit what it would spend on public-private projects being proposed, including the proposed $30 million sports complex at Uptown Janesville to which the city could contribute as much as $15 million.

Lipinski told the city he calculated the actual property tax cost to be far more than the 3% or 3.5% increase shown on drafts of the city’s proposed budget.

He said he thinks of the cost to average residents as a 10% tax hike after he factored in the wheel tax and curb and gutter chargebacks.

“You’re asking too much financially from the property taxpayers and citizens of the city,” Lipinski said.

It was no secret among council members that the wheel tax increase was inextricable from the city’s budget and that it would be unpopular with some residents.

Lipinski asked the city to consider cutting back on what it now pays out for city employees’ health insurance benefits. He suggested such a move might make the city’s $15 million plan to partner on an indoor ice arena and sports complex at the mall seem more palatable to more people.

Otherwise, Lipinski suggested, the city should send a message to “special interests” that he said are steering some city spending on public-private development and redevelopment projects.

“Special interests, including ARISE (the downtown riverfront revitalization strategy): Pay for your own dreams,” Lipinski said.

The council did not suggest budget amendments based on Lipinski’s comments, but council member Paul Benson asked city staff about health benefits and what model of bargaining the city uses.

City Finance Director David Godek said the city works to maintain a model that pays about 88% of employees’ insurance costs.

Godek said in a “good claims year”—a year with lower-than-average costs for health claims—such as 2020 and 2021, the city “retains” some finances from unpaid claims. Typically, he said, the city works out a match on benefits payout that is the same across the board for all employees, union and non-union.


Local
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Tourism figures locally, statewide nearing prepandemic levels

BELOIT

Tourism continues to rebound in Beloit and across Wisconsin as both local and statewide revenue tied to business and recreational travel begin to return to near pre-pandemic levels.

Since April 2021, Beloit hotel occupancy has ranged between 12% to 27% above daily occupancy rates seen in 2020, according to data provided to Visit Beloit. From June to October of 2019, Beloit had an average daily hotel occupancy rate of 70.3%. In 2020 over that same time period, occupancy dropped to an average of 43% daily occupancy. This year, daily hotel occupancy figures have climbed back up to an average of 60% or an average of 462 rooms occupied on any given night in Beloit out of a hotel room stock of 767 rooms.

Daily hotel occupancy reached its lowest point in April 2020 when hotels reported 22% daily occupancy, Visit Beloit tourism data shows.

Visit Beloit CEO Celestino Ruffini said 2019 is a “benchmark” used in the tourism industry to gauge how travel is rebounding after the height of the pandemic.

“We have well exceeded where we were in the midst of the pandemic,” Ruffini said. “We are still closely watching where we are in comparison to 2019. We have some room to get where we were in 2019, but occupancy is rebounding.”

Hotel revenue from July through September of this year all exceeded figures seen in 2019, which would make for three months of record-setting revenue generation, Ruffini said. Hotel revenue from July through September of this year was on average 7.6% higher than revenue seen in 2019, Visit Beloit data shows.

Prior to the pandemic, Beloit had seen 11 straight months of record hotel revenue from March of 2019 and February of 2020.

Ruffini said it is important to note the early 2020 opening of the Holiday Inn Express on the Milwaukee Road corridor. The hotel became the city’s largest with 124 rooms.

“In general, we are definitely on the rebound. People are still spending money to stay here in Beloit,” Ruffini said.

Another strong sign of consumer confidence improving in the area is Rock County reporting record sales tax revenue generation for three consecutive quarters of this year, with the first quarter of 2021 nearing $4 million, and both the second and third quarters surpassing $4.5 million in sales tax revenue, per data provided by the Rock County Development Alliance.

In Wisconsin, travel spending data for September of this year shows the state’s first growth in monthly year-over-year tourism spending compared to 2019 even as the national average continues to lag at a 9% drop. Wisconsin was one of only 13 states to post positive growth over 2019, according to the United States Travel Association’s monthly tourism spending data.

“The tourism industry is an essential part of our state and our economy,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said. “We’ve put more than $200 million in federal recovery funds toward helping our tourism and hospitality industries get through this pandemic and bounce back, and I’m proud of our work to help support our economic recovery.”

Both Illinois and Minnesota lagged behind the national average at 21% and 20% spending declines, while Iowa and Michigan exceeded the national average, losing 5% and 3% in traveler spending compared to 2019.

In 2020, Wisconsin’s $17.3 billion tourism industry saw a 22% decline compared to 2019, the state’s best year on record. The Wisconsin Department of Tourism anticipates 2021 to still be down compared to 2019, but the increased spending is another indicator of the state’s steady recovery.

“We expect to see more bumps in the long road to recovery, but we are on the right path and we want to celebrate this moment for the tourism industry workers whose livelihoods depend on this rebound,” Tourism Secretary-designee Anne Sayers said. “While meetings and conventions and other large group gatherings are slow to return, leisure travelers are making up for it by spending their time and their dollars in Wisconsin.”

A report published Oct. 31 by Destination Analysts, a market research firm aimed at tracking the tourism industry in the U.S., found that Americans across the country are beginning to become more confident in travel after the surge of the COVID-19 delta variant at the mid-part of this year.

In the report, 83.8% of respondents said they currently have travel plans, with 53% traveling at least once in the next three months and 52.5% of travelers saying they would prioritize travel in their budgets.


Obituaries and death notices for Nov. 9, 2021

Wilma Charlene Brandsey

Douglas R. Brandt

James “J.B.” Brown

Tonia J. (Dooley) Eppers

Linn Marie Furlano

Richard I. Howes

Bruce D. Johnson

Mary “Barb” Knilans

Pauline Knoerr

Wallace E. Krueger

Jeffrey Miller

Shellie Osborne

Hazel D. (Alfred) Cummings Ristow


Education
centerpiece
Milton School District’s special education program given $89,000 state grant

MILTON

The Wisconsin Department of Instruction, through its Transition Readiness Grant program, has awarded the Milton School District an $89,000 grant to help support career-readiness education for special education students.

The program supports Wisconsin’s students with disabilities as they transition to work and postsecondary education environments after high school. The TRG funds allowed the district to purchase wheelchair-accessible vehicles to better accommodate transportation of students with mobility limitations.

Declan Boran-Ragotzy, Milton High School’s special education teacher, described for the Milton School Board at its Monday meeting how the grant money will help students.

“When I’m talking about a student’s disability, I’m talking about a student who has an individualized educational plan,” Boran-Ragotzy said. “When we’re talking about transition, we are talking about three major components. We are talking about college and career readiness, independent functional living skills, and recreational opportunities.”

Within the special education program is the SOAR program. The acronym stands for soft skills, opportunities, adult services and resources. The program is for students older than 18 and focuses on disability-related needs and goals.

Currently, 47% of these students work 35 hours or more per work week. The district’s goal is to raise that percentage to 75% by the end of 2023, then have 50% of students in SOAR pursue higher education.

“I think it’s really important that you recognize that when you have to use those intercommunication skills with these agencies (that help people apply for a jobs and more) that it can be a lot for one person to manage,” Boran-Ragotzy said. “That’s why the IEP team is so important. Even starting at the middle school level, it is important to start talking about community agencies so that families have a solid foundational knowledge and understanding of what each agency does as they come to their senior year.”

He added that when he came to Milton, he knew he was coming to a community that believes and follows through with actionable steps to make sure that students receive the best opportunities.

After his presentation, Boran-Ragotzy answered a few questions from school board members. When board member Dave Holterman asked how much the grant was for, Boran-Ragotzy said it was for $89,000 but that “based on student enrollment, we will be able to utilize $69,000 of that.”


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