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Janesville City Council decides to work with revenue it has in 2014 budget

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Marcia Nelesen
January 15, 2013

A simple statement by Janesville City Council Member Deb Dongarra-Adams effectively ended a lengthy discussion Monday.

"I just want to say, I can't afford to pay any more taxes," she said. "I will not be voting in favor of these."

Dongarra-Adams referred to two referendum questions that members Jim Farrell and Sam Liebert proposed adding to the April ballot.

One question would have allowed the council to use up to $1 million each of the next three years to maintain public safety services. The second would have allowed the council up to $1.5 million for each of three years to fix streets.

Voting against the referendum were Dongarra-Adams, Matt Kealy, DuWayne Severson and President Kathy Voskuil. Voting in favor were Liebert, Farrell and Russ Steeber.

The city has recently begun every budget cycle in the hole because of the levy cap, decreasing revenues tied to the recession and falling state shared revenues. The council's options have been to take from reserves and increase borrowing, which is not capped by the state.

State law allows the levy to increase by the value of new construction only, and that is running at 1 percent or less, said Assistant City Manager Jay Winzenz.

The council in the last three years has used reserves to maintain service levels, raised garbage fees and instituted a $10 wheel tax.

It also began borrowing to maintain streets because borrowing is not capped by the state. That, though, increases the eventual cost due to interest. The city will fix four to six miles of street this year, while it should be fixing 14 miles per year, Winzenz said.

Those voting against the referendum said they were elected by residents to make responsible decisions. Two advocated for more scrutiny of the budget before residents are asked whether they want to be taxed more. Those who voted for the referendum said the option to levy more money would be another tool and would not necessarily mean the council would raise taxes.

"We are doing our jobs by asking the people what they want," Liebert said. "That doesn't mean you support a tax increase. You support the people deciding."

He said he believed residents would rather stop borrowing to fix streets.

Farrell noted past councils have been extremely responsible in handling city finances and have kept tax levy increases to a minimum.

Severson, though, said the council would not agree to ask the administration to find $150,00 in cuts last year to reduce the use of reserves this year.

"I think we have to look at the same thing the people in our community are having to do, to cut their family budgets, their business budgets," Severson said.

"If you pass a referendum to spend money, you're going to spend money. That's what government does," he said. "It's an easy way to just take someone else's money."

Kealy said candidates are elected by residents based on the candidates' views.

He, too, said the council failed in its scrutiny of the 2013 budget.

"We haven't looked at tough cuts. We haven't looked at contracting services, we haven't looked at efficiencies," he said.

Kealy asked council members to begin looking at the 2014 budget now rather than waiting for the traditional start in October.

"I can't support these initiatives unless we are going to put everything out to referendum," he said.

Steeber disagreed, saying from his experience, budgets already have been scrutinized by the administration by the time they get to the council for review.

"There's not a lot of wiggle room," Steeber said. "You're never going to make up that hole that's there. You'll have to borrow it or take it out of reserves.

"Let the citizens decide."

Voskuil agreed with Kealy and said she was elected to make the decisions and be fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars.

"We have ways the public can be involved other than a referendum," she said. "I don't think we should govern by referendum."

After the vote, Liebert said: "For the record, the majority of the council said they don't trust the public to help them in making large decisions.

"They decided to continue borrowing on roads rather than pay-as-you-go. It is impossible with the current budget status to find a million dollars in personnel cuts or anywhere else."



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