A proposed transportation utility in the city would force the Janesville School District to shift money away from regular operations to pay its utility bill for road maintenance, the district superintendent says.
Estimates show the district could have to reallocate tens of thousands of dollars, an amount the district is unable to recoup because of state-imposed revenue restrictions, Superintendent Steve Pophal said.
A transportation utility functions like a water, stormwater or trash utility, implementing a user fee to pay for road repair. The advantage it provides, some argue, is that it raises cash to pay for road maintenance instead of borrowing.
The city council put Janesville’s proposed transportation utility on the back burner Feb. 22, but council members said they hope to continue discussing it with the aim of bringing it back to the new council after the April 6 election.
The school district is looking at a potential $68,000 annual transportation utility bill based on estimates from the city, Pophal said. That amount likely would change as utility rates are fine-tuned.
City council members were given these annual per-building estimates for school utility fees:
- Elementary schools: $1,914 each.
- Middle schools: $3,207 each.
- High schools: $10,367 each.
However, many unknowns remain.
For example, Rock River Charter School serves high-schoolers in a downtown building much smaller than Craig and Parker high schools. How the city would determine a fee for the charter school and other nontraditional school buildings is undetermined, Pophal said.
How much the district’s administrative building would be charged is also uncertain, he said.
Janesville schools pay nothing toward road maintenance because school districts do not pay property taxes.
The city currently funds its annual 12-mile road rehabilitation program through borrowing, which is paid off with property taxes. City officials say that model is unsustainable.
The transportation utility would charge property owners a per-trip fee based on use of the property. Every time a vehicle leaves or enters a driveway counts as one “trip,” and the number of trips determines how much a property owner pays.
Trip averages are determined by the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ national trip generation data, which is used frequently in construction.
City officials have said trip generation data would have to be adjusted to account for property use and size.
“I assume some good faith and common sense would apply,” Pophal said.
From a taxpayer’s perspective, the district’s utility fee would not increase school taxes because the district cannot raise taxes to offset the fee, Pophal said.
However, the use of district taxpayers’ dollars would shift so the district could make the payment, he said.
Supporters of the transportation utility might argue that the school district should help pay for road rehabilitation because the district generates traffic and benefits from the city’s road maintenance program.
City officials have pitched the transportation utility as equitable because it forces all properties that use the roads to contribute to maintenance. The utility would shift the burden from residential property owners, who account for most of the tax base, to commercial properties.
It also would require traditionally tax-exempt entities, such as schools and churches, to pay a share.
But some residents and council members have questioned whether the utility would have negative consequences for residents and consumers who might pay more for rent, goods and services to offset bigger utility bills.
The school board has not taken a position on the transportation utility, Pophal said. District officials are currently gathering information and trying to understand short- and long-term impacts.
The city council was supposed to vote on the transportation utility March 22, but the decision to pause action has left the timeline in flux.
That could have unintended consequences for the school district.
School district budgets run from July 1 to June 30 and are approved annually in October. The district’s 2021-22 budget would be affected if the council chose to implement a transportation utility in 2022, Pophal said.
It would help if district officials knew whether the utility would be a factor during budget creation, Pophal said. The budget is in its early stages now, which means there’s still time for conversations, he said.
The Janesville School District is supported by taxpayers who live inside and outside the city limits. If a transportation utility were created, residents of neighboring towns would pay toward the district’s utility bill and, therefore, city roads.
Pophal said district officials have not yet thought about how to communicate how and why rural taxpayers’ taxes would be used to fund Janesville roads.
“I think this is new enough that people are just starting to learn about it,” Pophal said. “We have not had any feedback.”