Our Views: City's critics should get informed, do better

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September 20, 2014

It's a refrain on local talk radio and in The Gazette's Sound Off.

In one form or another, it amounts to this:

“The city of Janesville needs to stop spending money.”

Depending on the caller, he or she typically mentions municipal projects that he or she considers frivolous. Of late, those projects include the new bus garage and the planned Central Fire Station.

Some people simply call for a moratorium on spending—period. Taxes are too high, they say, and the city should tighten its belt.

None of us like it when our property taxes come due or the water bill arrives in the mail.

The fact is, though, that running a city costs money. That's especially true if you want a city worth living in.

What most critics don't appreciate is that Janesville is a well-run city whose spending is among the lowest in a ranking of peer cities in Wisconsin.

According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Janesville in 2012 ranked 22nd in general government spending per capita of the 23 cities in Wisconsin with populations between 30,000 and 150,000. Janesville ranked last in basic spending per capita, which includes general government, street maintenance, law enforcement and fire-ambulance.

Those aren't the rankings of a city that is careless with its residents' money.

Many people also don't understand that the state limits how much the city can increase its tax levy each year. The amount is based on the percentage increase in value from new construction. That has led to tax increases in the 1 percent to 2 percent range for recent budgets in Janesville. That's hardly frivolous and barely keeps up with inflation.

One way around that limit is to borrow for major projects. The state allows cities to exceed levy limits to pay off debt. That's why the city council last month approved a plan to ask residents in November if they support borrowing $1.2 million a year for five years to catch up on street maintenance. The operational budget doesn't have the flexibility to address our road problems.

For perspective on whether the city can afford the borrowing, numbers from the state show Janesville has the lowest debt per capita among Rock County cities and the second-lowest among the state's 11 biggest cities.

Simply stated, many of the critics are ill informed.

Some labeled the new bus garage a “Taj Mahal” as they saw it going up, but the majority of people who took the time to tour the facility and learn about it during an open house came away convinced it was a wise investment.

The fire station and its $9 million price tag are the latest targets, but the critics don't appreciate the complexities of the decision. The city has put off this need for too long. The new station will serve the city for 50 years, and the longer we wait, the more it will cost.

Maybe the project's scope can be reduced and the cost whittled by a few million dollars. A committee of residents and officials is working on that.

The residents on that committee, on the city council and on other committees and commissions that help shape the city's future are good people doing their best. They get paid nothing for their time and effort and the grief they often receive. They care about this city, and they are trying hard to make wise and frugal decisions that consider the various interests.

The critics typically just want to cut spending and lower taxes.

If they think it's that easy, they should get involved and get informed. They should study plans and budgets. They should attend meetings and speak at public hearings. They should serve on committees and commissions. They should run for city council and try to convince enough voters that they know what's best for the community.

Sadly, few of them will. Instead, they'll stand at a distance, without knowledge or insight, and attack those who make the tough decisions.

Sometimes, those decisions involve spending money. That's the price of serving the varied needs of residents and having a city that many people are proud to call home.

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