Janesville City Council members say they hope the public has enough time to digest a new local road funding scheme this fall before council members would need to vote on the plan made with the state Department of Transportation.
At a public hearing Sept. 27, local residents can sound off on part of an emerging “blended funding” plan by the city to double down on its wheel tax—a move that would mean most local residents would see the per-vehicle wheel tax they pay annually grow from $20 to $40.
That’s one change the city staff has proposed to its roads program to wean the city off a level of borrowing for road repairs that many city officials say is unsustainable under the current rate of inflation.
The proposal came Wednesday after a city council study session and a separate public engagement session the city held in August to gather residents’ thoughts on local road funding.
Another proposal laid out Wednesday by Janesville Finance Director David Godek and City Manager Mark Freitag would have the city fund 100% of curb and gutter replacement costs through stormwater charges to residents and commercial customers. Stormwater charges now cover 50% of curb and gutter replacement costs.
Over the next 5 years, the city faces about $16 million in needed curb and gutter projects as part of its streets program—with about $2.7 million scheduled in curb and gutter work to be done in 2022.
City officials said the proposed funding shift for curb and gutter work along with an increase in the wheel tax would save the city from borrowing $2.5 million over the next year. Moreover, they said it would save about $13 million in borrowing for road projects over the next five years, based on the city’s current, 12-miles-per-year street repair schedule.
The plan also would cut down on about $1.75 million in interest payments the city would pay out under its current roads program, Godek and Freitag said.
On Wednesday, council members acknowledged the city has been in a two-year-long hunt for ways to more sustainably fund its road repair schedule without increasingly piling on debt through borrowing.
Earlier this year, the council shelved talks on creating a transportation utility after the concept drew backlash from the local business community over its potential costs to businesses and commercial property owners.
Freitag on Wednesday called the new proposals a “reasonable, interim step,” not an “end-all, be-all” approach to road funding.
Freitag said he favors a transportation utility, although he and Godek pointed out that when Janesville proposed a utility earlier this year, it was the first municipality in the state to do so.
The new model proposed Wednesday does not include a transportation utility. Instead, Freitag said it would allow the city to take a “tactical pause” in pursuing a utility while state and local officials learn more about whether such utilities are legal and could withstand legal opposition some partisan politicians and business groups say could arise.
Godek showed the council estimates that under the new model, many residents could pay about $23 more a year on storm sewer charges, along with a $20 hike in wheel tax per vehicle, while the average commercial property owner or industry could pay about $350 more a year on storm sewer charges.
By comparison, the cities of Milwaukee and Milton charge a $30 wheel tax, and Madison charges $40, according to a city analysis of other municipal roads programs.
Wisconsin’s annual vehicle registration fee is lower than that in most other peer states, Godek said.
Over the long haul, Godek and Freitag said the storm sewer and wheel tax increases would draw down the amount people would be asked to pay through taxes.
During discussions last month, Freitag and Godek said both pieces of the new proposal garnered more positive responses from the public than did a set of alternate proposals to form a transportation utility or a transportation special assessment.
If the council greenlights the new roads program, an increase to the wheel tax would go in effect in January, and the city next year would begin charging curb and gutter replacement to the city’s storm sewer budget.
On a 6-0 vote, the city council approved holding a public hearing for the wheel tax increase Sept. 27. The whole proposal still faces a full council vote plus registration of the wheel tax changes with the DOT.
The council could shift curb and gutter projects to the storm water fund through the adoption of a new city budget later this fall.
City Council President Douglas Marklein asked Freitag if the council might delay a public hearing and votes on the proposal until later in the fall to give residents more time to learn the nuts and bolts of the proposals.
Marklein and Council Vice President Paul Benson both pointed out that while the city has tried to alert residents of a new roads funding proposal, a public engagement forum the city held in August to garner comments and ideas from residents on the roads program was “poorly attended.”
Freitag said the city must give the DOT at least 90 days advance notice on a wheel tax change in order for the change to go in effect on Jan. 1, when some residents could begin renewing their vehicle registrations.