Janesville property tax bills started arriving in mailboxes last week, triggering an outbreak of furrowed brows and grimaces.
That’s the kind of reaction we’d expect, anyway, from bills that rose, on average, by 11.1% for Janesville homeowners living in the Janesville School District.
Also last week, the Janesville School Board hired a consultant to inquire about holding a referendum next year. The timing was awkward, considering the new tax bills contained a 16% increase, on average, for the portion paid to the Janesville School District. (The city’s part of the bill increased by 7% on average.)
Credit school board member Kevin Murray for publicly acknowledging the conundrum facing a district with a collection of school buildings in desperate need of fixes and upgrades estimated to cost $77 million to $120 million.
“I’m really anxious to see my tax bill,” said Murray, the only member to vote against hiring the consultant, the Donovan Group. “And I’m really curious what the rest of the community is going to say to me once they get their tax bills.”
It doesn’t take a consultant to imagine the tax increase would create a headwind for the district next year. Curiously, the board did itself no favors through some last-minute budgeting maneuvers in November resulting in tacking on an extra $4.4 million to school district tax levy. The school board seemed to unnecessarily add to the anxiety that Murray says he’s now feeling.
Of course, the source of all this unpleasantness is the revaluation the city performed over the past year, resulting in a large shift of the tax burden from commercial to residential properties.
Murray and other board members should monitor how these eye-popping tax bills affect the outcome of the Donovan Group’s surveys, community meetings and other work. The consultant doesn’t have a financial interest in getting a referendum passed, but school districts typically don’t hire these firms to shoot down their referendum aspirations. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether they’re cheerleader or researcher.
From the district’s standpoint, there’s reason to be optimistic, despite the tax bill anxiety. Taxpayers in the region have been willing—if not eager—to pass spending measures in recent years, with a couple notable exceptions. An unscientific poll on The Gazette’s website this week indicates an appetite to pass a referendum for Janesville. The district’s wish list is a humble one and follows other successful referendum formulas.
The big question is whether this 11.1% tax bill increase upsets the balance that had favored referendums in recent years. We’re curious to learn what Murray hears from the taxpayers in the coming weeks. He might not need a consultant to tell him whether taxpayers are still in a generous mood or have turned sour on more spending.