Janesville City Council stalls on street repair decison

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Neil Johnson
January 27, 2015

JANESVILLE—Any real plan on how the city of Janesville should pay to fix its ailing streets likely won't come for months—or at least not until the next city council is elected in April.

The Janesville City Council pushed hard decisions on the streets plan onto the next council Monday night. That came after news last week that the city can't legally float a referendum for street repairs on the April election ballot until it has final figures from the state Department of Revenue on the city's tax levy and net new construction.

Those figures won't be available until August.

Some council members still favor a referendum on a ballot that would again ask voters for permission to tax above levy limits to pay $1.2 million as part of a plan to bolster street repairs.

Yet some said Monday they think the referendum is likely to fail as it did when it first went to voters in the election last November.

Council member Douglas Marklein, who is seeking re-election this spring, said he's doubtful the city should spend the $30,000 it would cost to ready the question for a special election this fall, which is the earliest the city could float the referendum again.

“I don't think we need to do a special election, and do a street referendum that isn't going to pass anyways,” he said. 

Instead, he said, the city should consider holding off on a referendum until the November 2016 election.

The initial referendum failed by a wide margin amid wording that made no mention that the referendum was for street repairs.

The council as a whole was passive Monday night, with most members seeming resigned to hold off on a decision and instead put the city's street woes on the shoulders of the next city council. Four council seats are up in the election.

“This is the one time that we should let a new council...maybe they can come forward with a new idea,” Marklein said, although he vowed he'd keep the issue a “hot button topic” in the months to come.

Marklein and council Vice President Sam Liebert are trying to retain two of the four seats amid a field of six candidates. Council President DuWayne Severson and council member Brian Fitzgerald aren't seeking re-election.

Liebert was the lone council member Monday who pushed for putting the referendum on a special election ballot this fall. It would be the only item on the ballot.

Liebert said a special election could ensure the referendum doesn't get overlooked as it could on a ballot loaded with races for public office and other local referendums.

Council member Mark Bobzien is ready to walk away from the idea of a referendum. He said he believes the city should bite the bullet and borrow the money.

“You can send it out there three four times and it's not going to pass,” Bobzien said. “We have to make the decision to do the tough thing, which is to borrow.”

The city already has borrowed $800,000 to boost street repairs in the near term, and it plans to roll forward with 9 miles of repairs in the next year—an increase of 3 miles over last year.

Officials have said the city's goal is to spend an extra $2 million on repairs annually beyond the $2.2 million it already spends. That, officials say, would allow the city to repair the 12 miles of street it says it needs to repair each year to keep up with wear and tear.

The city now is reviewing borrowing options in the absence of a referendum. Under city estimates, borrowing an additional $1.2 million for repairs would mean a $40 tax increase for the average resident. That's compared to a $33 increase a streets referendum could cost.

Council member Matt Kealy said he thinks the city should keep bringing the referendum to voters, but he believes the question should be split to ask voters if they even want increased street repairs or if they'd favor borrowing.

Barring a spending referendum, another option discussed Monday would be an increase in the wheel tax from $10 to $20.

The wheel tax now pulls in about $535,000 a year. An increase could cost the average resident $22 extra, according to city estimates.

Kealy and council member Jim Farrell said they favor that option, with Farrell citing plans by the cities of Beloit and Appleton to increase their wheel tax by the same rate.

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