Although some members of the Janesville City Council said they know the decision to approve a fee hike will be unpopular with residents, the council unanimously approved a doubling of the city’s wheel tax starting in 2022.
After a public hearing Monday night, the council on a 7-0 vote approved an increase to the annual wheel tax for Janesville residents from $20 per vehicle to $40 per vehicle as a way to decrease the amount of money the city borrows to complete 12 miles of road repairs each year.
The vote came after a handful of residents asked during the hearing whether the city could cut expenses or grow revenue in other ways, including having the city address fewer miles of road each year. One resident proposed selling corporate naming rights for certain streets and parks to drum up funding for utility projects—something past city of Janesville administrations have looked into.
City council President Douglas Marklein said he has had one major theme brought to him in the years he has been on the city council: people telling him the council’s main priority should be to “fix the damn roads” and to not “keep kicking the problem down the road.”
City street repair costs are expected to climb from $7 million this year to $7.7 million in 2022, the city estimates. Under the current funding structure, the city would borrow $5 million for roadwork next year. The new plan would help the city draw down on borrowing to the tune of about $1 million a year, the city estimates, which in turn would save the city nearly $100,000 in future annual interest payments.
Marklein and others on the council said they don’t see the wheel tax increase as the magic bullet to pay for street repairs. In fact, city staff has called the approach, coupled with a proposal to charge 100% of curb and gutter replacement to the stormwater utility fund, a stopgap for a few years until other funding schemes for municipal roads might emerge.
The city had floated a transportation utility earlier this year, but the idea got put on ice after the local business community blanched at the possible costs to commercial property owners. Also unpopular, according to straw polls of residents who attended a public listening session last month, was a special roads assessment or a referendum to pay for road repairs.
A wheel tax increase doesn’t charge out-of-town residents or commercial operators who drive trucks and other vehicles that are larger than 8,000 pounds, so the fee increase would be paid by residents of Janesville who own at least one car.
City Manager Mark Freitag said Monday night that in the absence of a transportation utility that would charge residents and businesses and in the absence of the state amending its shared revenue model and cap on the amount the city can tax residents, a wheel tax increase is the most viable way for the city to maintain its current street repair schedule.
Freitag said he has been trying to make a case with state lawmakers for either a half-cent sales tax the city could impose or changes to state rules that limit tax levy increases to a municipality’s annual pace of net new construction, a model Freitag said is outstripped annually by the rate of inflation.
Council member Susan Johnson said she supported the tax increase even though she acknowledged it might be hard for some residents to swallow.
“We don’t want to continue borrowing so much for roads and have your children and grandchildren holding the bag,” Johnson said.
She called the wheel tax increase “the most responsible” way to fund road work in what has been “a very difficult time period” during a public health crisis.
Council member Paul Benson called the plan the “fairest way” to fund the city’s road program of any of the options the city has reviewed.
Benson and city Finance Director David Godek said that under a wheel tax hike, people who are on a fixed income will see an “overall tax decrease” because the city would be paying for roadwork as it goes rather than continuing to borrow and racking up millions of dollars in interest over the next decade.
Also Monday, the council on a 4-2 vote OK’d Kwik Trip’s bid for a liquor license at a future gas station and convenience store along North Wright Road, a location where Kwik Trip won’t likely break ground for nearly another two years.
City staff ask the city council Monday to revive discussions over an earlier request by Kwik Trip for a liquor license at 1030 N. Wright Road.
The request had been idled since May when a deadlocked city council moved to table the request. City staff on Monday asked the council for the second time since earlier this year to disregard a recommendation by the city’s Alcohol License Advisory Committee to decline Kwik Trip’s request.
In May, the city’s liquor board recommended the council deny the request because members said the request was made prematurely.
Even after Kwik Trip offered to put the project on a faster track, Johnson and fellow council members Paul Williams and Michael Jackson in May opposed the license.
On Monday, Williams, who chairs the city’s liquor board, and Johnson, both continued to oppose Kwik Trip’s request.
An official from local youth services nonprofit Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change said the agency’s research shows a link between an increase in liquor sales and an increase in “alcohol-related crimes.”
Both Williams and Johnson said they thought the request should go back to the liquor board, in part because it has been months since the request initially came but also because Kwik Trip doesn’t intend to launch the project until summer 2023 at the earliest, with some city officials citing construction labor and material shortages.
Benson said he supported the liquor license request because he pointed out that retail developments such as Kwik Trip stores are one of the few ways the city can expand its tax base.
Gale Price, the city’s economic development director, estimated Kwik Trip would spend about $8 million to build the new location and that it would create about 35 new jobs.
Jackson, who opposed the license request earlier, flipped his vote Monday, helping the request pass 4-2.
Marklein abstained from the discussion and the vote because he said he owns a commercial property near the site in question.
In a garage behind the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse, volunteers sort through donations for the thousands of evacuees from Afghanistan now staying at Fort McCoy in Monroe County.
Much of the work involves opening a mountain of Amazon and Target packages. The group set up online registries of needed items so people could send donations directly to the diocese. They’ve been collecting items like clothing, toiletries, backpacks, diapers and baby formula.
Karen Becker, marketing director for Catholic Charities, said the generosity of the community has been overwhelming at times, with more donations coming in than they can sort.
But the need of the people arriving at Fort McCoy has been just as staggering.
“The first few flights (of evacuees) I think came with maybe a suitcase for the family. A lot of them now, by the time they get here, have nothing. They just are getting on the planes and coming someplace safe, and I feel it’s our mission now to help them with what they need,” Becker said.
A spokesperson for Task Force McCoy-Operation Allies Welcome, the task force hosting the evacuees on the base, said there are around 12,500 people from Afghanistan staying there.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore has raised concerns about reports of inadequate care and staff speaking to refugees “in a rude condescending manner.” The task force spokesperson said officials are working to address all concerns raised and are “dedicated to treating our Afghan guests with dignity and respect.”
While government officials are focused on large, operational issues on the base, nonprofits are stepping in to help with humanitarian needs. In addition to Catholic Charities, veteran-led Team Rubicon, the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross have all been helping to welcome the refugees.
Jenelle Eli, senior director of communications for the Red Cross, said volunteers for her organization try to make refugees comfortable from the moment they arrive.
“It’s really interesting what people really need. Yes, they’re going to need shelter. Yes, they’re going to need really basic necessities. But these are people just like you and me, and often people just ask for a hot cup of coffee or a hot cup of tea,” Eli said.
In the first few hours after arrival, Eli said her organization focuses on getting people medical items that they left behind in the rush to evacuate, such as eyeglasses, prescription medications, canes and wheelchairs.
She said the group’s definition of basic aid after a disaster has also evolved in recent years to include access to Wi-Fi.
“After any crisis, people want Wi-Fi because they want to be connected to their family and friends and they also want to feel empowered to help themselves,” Eli said. “The U.S. government is able to help (refugees) find things like housing or a new job. But when people have access to Wi-Fi, they can also do their own research.”
Eli said volunteers try to show people that they’re in a safe place. Often that’s through a kind word or a smile, but Eli said wearing masks during the pandemic has forced them to rely on other cues like having open body language. She said the evacuees have gone through a traumatic experience and sometimes need someone to listen as they process what happened and work through fears about what comes next.
The first refugees arrived at Fort McCoy a month ago. Federal officials at the base have said they hope to finish people’s paperwork and medical screening in 14 to 21 days after arrival. But a spokesperson for the operation did not respond to WPR when asked how quickly the process is moving and how many people have left the base.
Becker and her volunteers from Catholic Charities are working to provide a comfortable space for refugees to spend their time while they wait.
Becker estimates almost a third of the population at the base are children. Their group recently set up several women and children’s centers among the barracks where refugees are temporarily living. Half of each center is a place for children to color or play games and the other half is a respite area for women to gather together.
“We’re assessing what they like to do, how they like to spend their time,” Becker said. “We’ve had some large tea kettles donated and in the afternoons, we’ll also be offering these women a place to gather and have tea and build their sense of community and their wellness and help their lives return a little bit to normalcy as best we can.”
Becker said popular additions to the centers have been three sewing machines and fabric donated by volunteers.
“One of the Afghan women sits down and without a pattern, without any measuring tape, just fits another woman in a long-sleeved, knee-length garment that fit her beautifully, and she did it in an hour and a half,” Becker said. “We realized that there is this amazing group of Afghan women who are talented seamstresses who would love the activity of being able to sew for children, for others as colder weather comes on.”
She said many of the men are helping interpret for the different organizations providing services. She has also seen them playing soccer or working to find Wi-Fi around the base.
Becker said she’s not sure how long refugees will be living at the base, but Catholic Charities is already thinking about collecting winter coats and boots.
When the refugees do leave Fort McCoy, they’ll be assigned to one of nine nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies working across the U.S.
Laura Thako is a development associate for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants at their office in Iowa. She said when an individual or family is assigned to their organization, the group typically has a week to set up housing before they arrive. They then work with the arrivals to help them get settled in their new home.
“Everything from helping them get their Social Security cards, having the children enroll in school, helping them find an English language class and look for work, all of these things that need to happen in the first 90 days after they arrive,” Thako said.
Thako said they’ve only settled one Afghan family that evacuated in the U.S. withdrawal so far. But they’re anticipating more evacuees will arrive in the next week or two.
She said one thing that could differ from the typical resettlement process is what kinds of services will be available to the large number of Afghans who are here under humanitarian parole. Thako said the status is rarely used in the immigration process and does not make someone eligible for public benefits and the typical employment services that resettlement agencies provide.
“So they would be receiving a parallel set of scaled-back services. There is work being done at the federal level to address that and hopefully soon, but right now that’s where things stand,” Thako said.
During a briefing last week, a senior U.S. government official said Afghans granted parole will receive U.S. State Department-funded assistance through the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program. This includes assistance from local agencies with housing and basic necessities like food, clothing and furnishings during the first 30-90 days in their new communities.
The official said placement of the evacuees will prioritize reunification with family and friends already living in the U.S. and consider other factors like “reasonable housing, job opportunities and community capacity.”
“Because of the (large number of people needing to be resettled) and how quick this process is going to be taking place, there’s not a lot of back and forth on (placement),” Thako said.
Her office has committed to welcoming 125 Afghan refugees, on top of the 40 special immigration visa holders they had already committed to hosting. But she said her office and other local agencies may be asked to take on more people before the end of the operation.
Jeffrey A. Brink
Janine A. Calkins
Marie Wainwright Hammond
Thomas “Tom” Hume
Carolyn S. Lasch
Bernhard W. Verhoeven
Lorna Sue Weiffenbach
Kathleen Rose “Kathy” Wendler
Recommending no change in the Milton School District’s mandate of universal masking by students and staff, Superintendent Rich Dahman on Monday night cited the high rate of COVID-19 transmission throughout Rock County.
“We’re not recommending any changes to the plan at this time,” Dahman said at a meeting of the Milton School Board. “Our multiple layers of protection seem to be working very well.”
Before Dahman spoke, several parents raised concerns over the Milton Forward plan and it’s current COVID-19 protocols.
Gina Doomer, a parent of five children in the school district, had several questions.
“What made the district decide on what layers of mitigation to use? Why can’t we go back to 6 feet in the classroom and wash surfaces? Why don’t we add those two levels of mitigation (and make) the mask optional?” Doomer asked.
Anthony Falso, a parent of two who moved to the area recently, noted inconsistencies in the school board’s approach to implementing safety measures to limit the spread of the virus.
He said he was “shocked at how it seemed that some members of the board completely disregarded all of the major data from the medical field. During the meeting, one of the board members said they had searched and could not find a peer-reviewed study that showed that masks work. When there are literally scores and scores and scores of these peer-reviewed studies available.”
Dahman said that as of Monday, Sept. 27, there were seven positive COVID-19 cases among Milton students and one positive among staff. Eleven students are currently quarantined due to in-school exposures and 15 students are quarantined because of exposure off campus.
School board member Leslie Hubert asked Dahman when it would be safe to switch to a mask-optional policy.
“I think there’s a lot of moving parts to that decision of whether we should loosen our protocol or tighten our protocol,” Dahman replied. “We need to make sure that we have a system in place that maintains that level of safety for our students, staff and community. It isn’t as simple as looking at the number of transmissions or the number of people vaccinated.”
No vote was taken, leaving the universal masking policy in place.