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Janesville City Council candidates talk jobs, services, fiscal responsibility

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Marcia Nelesen
March 28, 2013

— The names of six residents seeking four seats on the Janesville City Council will appear on Tuesday’s ballot.

Terms are for two years.

Two incumbents—Russ Steeber and Deb Dongarra-Adams—did not seek re-election.

On the ballot will be incumbents DuWayne Severson and Sam Liebert and challengers Julie Broda, Brian Fitzgerald, Douglas Marklein and Jerry Smythe.

Yuri Rashkin, a former city councilman, recently announced he is running as a write-in candidate.

Candidates whose names will appear on the ballot answered the following questions:

Q: Why are you running for city council?

Broda: “I hope to not only maintain the standard of living for current residents but to also strive to improve all aspects of Janesville for our future generations. During these years of hardship, economic and job growth with sustainable, living wages are key.”

Fitzgerald: “I was born and raised in Janesville. I want to see that the quality of life we have here continues for my grandchildren and their generation.”

Liebert: “I want to help bring jobs back to Janesville, restore our infrastructure and continue to support our great record of public safety and low crime. I want to be able to leave a better, cleaner, safer and more prosperous Janesville for my unborn children.

“Janesville continues to be a great place to raise a family and work, and I hope to continue my service to the community.”

Marklein: “I have the time, energy and desire to serve the citizens of Janesville. The skills required to be an effective councilmember are the same skills I apply every day in my profession: listening, problem solving, planning, balancing needs and wants, and staying on budget (time and money).

“I have worked in every neighborhood in Janesville, with small and large budgets, with homeowners, landlords and tenants. The experiences gained from serving on municipal committees and SCWBA (South Central Wisconsin Builders Association) have provided valuable insights and contacts that will allow me to start working for Janesville on day one.”

Severson: “Janesville is under severe economic stress, and the proper use of hard-earned taxpayer money is crucial. I can make the tough decisions on spending that are needed during this difficult time for Janesville’s economy. Janesville needs to create jobs now; stop tax and fee increases; live within its means.”

Smythe: “I have always been interested in politics, but it has only been since my retirement that I have actually considered running for office. Having the time necessary to effectively perform the duties of the office was also a big factor in my decision. I am also very concerned with the direction our nation is headed in at all levels of government. Maybe I can help stem the tide just a bit.”

Q: Name one problem or challenge the city faces, and describe how you would you address it.

Broda: “Business and job development are instrumental to the future of Janesville. Not only bringing new businesses to our area, but working with current business owners to minimize hurdles for expansion and fiscal success. I believe working closely with community groups and developmental organizations such as Rock County 5.0 and Forward Janesville, in addition to utilizing state resources, will be crucial in the success of Janesville’s economic future.”

Fitzgerald: “The city has a long history of borrowing money to resolve current problems. This only creates debt that future city councils will have to pay back. It is time to stop kicking the can down the road and to resolve current issues with current revenue. In post-GM Janesville, we have to make some tough decisions to move forward.”

Marklein: “The major challenge … will be the budget. Previous councils have struggled balancing costs and services. Historically, the city has ranked lower than comparable cities in employees per population served, tax mill rates and utility costs, yet there lingers the perception that more cost-effective solutions exist.

“I would like to begin working with the administration, department heads and employees early to uncover what savings and efficiencies could be realized, then communicate directly to the taxpayers the results. The inertia of government is difficult to control in the short term without unintended ramifications. Past councils have begun the process, and new councils must continue to review the cost of providing governmental services.”

Severson: “The development of new business and the growth of jobs will be the engine for recovery for Janesville. The council must eliminate barriers for business development in order to bring new jobs to Janesville.

“The city must increase its work with Forward Janesville, Rock County 5.0 and the state of Wisconsin to explore all options to enhance the business climate. To stay in competition for new business development, Janesville must enhance short-term as well as long-term financial incentive packages. Incentive packages must ensure that taxpayer money is wisely invested by establishing clear milestones of success.

“The city must continue to reach out to local, national and international business developers to promote Janesville and its many assets.”

Liebert: “The city continues to face the challenge of deteriorating roads and infrastructure. Every year, we fall farther and farther behind. The city should be paving/repairing about 14 miles a year, but in the past two years we’ve only done four and six miles. I believe a major investment (must) be our roads before we fall too far behind.

“If we wish to attract new citizens and businesses to Janesville, we must have the infrastructure to support those needs. We must take bold action to address this situation.”

Smythe: “The biggest challenge we face is to keep our city finances under control while still maintaining adequate levels of essential city services. In the short term, we must impart a sense of urgency to city administration in this regard. We must spend more time prioritizing where to commit available funds and actually cut funding that isn’t considered most important before we reach a budget crisis.

“Additional revenue through new taxes or user fees should be off the table. My perception is that the majority of our citizens do not favor increased taxes. Our budget problems will only be resolved when we learn to live within our means.

“The council needs to take a proactive approach to economic development. Sound investments to spur economic activity and attract new businesses to the community (tax incentives and regulatory easing, for example) should be considered. An expanded tax base will provide additional revenue without the necessity of tax or fee increases.”

Q: Two council members recently proposed a referendum to ask residents permission to raise the tax levy to maintain police and fire services and fix more streets. Would you favor such a referendum? Why or why not?

Broda: “Additional options should have been explored first. Further research is needed as to the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the current system. (The city should explore) resolutions (other) cities have come up with. I would prefer to minimize costs rather than raise taxes or pass referendums, unless absolutely necessary.”

Fitzgerald: “No. Council members were elected to make tough decisions, not to toss them back to the voters. Voters don’t need higher taxes. The city needs to live within its budget, and the council needs to make that happen.”

Liebert: “I was one of the two members who sponsored the resolution. Over the past five years, our main non-property tax revenue generators have dropped by $1 million. At the same time, our cost of public safety has increased $1 million.

“This past year, the council had to borrow almost $1 million from our reserve account to balance the budget; this is not a sustainable practice. As I stated before, our roads are falling apart at an increasing pace every year. I would rather be proactive with our public safety and roads instead of borrowing money from the reserves.

“The city’s current policy to pay for roads is borrowing about $1 million dollars a year in 10-year incremental-bonds. I believe taxpayers would rather have a ‘pay as you go’ system instead of borrowing against our children and grandchildren’s future. It’s irresponsible to continue this practice.”

Marklein: “If a referendum is required by state law to finance street repairs in excess of property tax limits, then detailed proposals showing specific costs related to borrowing versus pay-it-forward plans and the pros/cons of each would be worth investigating. The recent referendum question was too vague on cost-control measures and limits. I would not have supported the proposal as presented. Bottom line is creating maximum value for tax revenues over the long term.”

Severson: “The assumption on the referendum question was that services are being provided in the most efficient way; thus, the only options would be to cut services or raise taxes. Families and businesses are able to meet their needs in new creative economic ways. City government must adopt the same analytical review of ways to deliver services at lower costs.”

Smythe: “I don’t see a groundswell of support for raising taxes. The council was right to reject this referendum proposal. We should not attempt to shift the burden of responsibility to the taxpayer. That really is why they were elected.”

Q: Some have said the downtown would benefit from a large project that could propel development in the area. This would likely be a public/private partnership or a new public space and parking ramps, for example. Such a project would certainly increase borrowing and raise taxes. Is this something you would favor? If not, should anything be done to help the downtown attract residents?

Broda: “It is my understanding that the city has already completed a plan to address development in the downtown area and measures have been implemented to curtail tax increases.”

Fitzgerald: “I really don’t want to comment on hypothetical projects. It would depend on the project, the cost and how the city planned to pay for its share. The city has struggled for decades trying to find a way to attract people and business to our downtown. I think we need to make downtown a destination that attracts people from all over southern Wisconsin. This could be done with specialty shops (for example, art or antiques) or a variety of special events.”

Liebert: “I believe that with taking down the old parking ramp over the river and the Adams & Sons Roofing building, Janesville will be opening up much more green space for the public. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded Janesville a $400,000 brownfield cleanup grant. We should use this money, in conjunction with the private sector and non-profit sector, to increase public access and activities along the riverfront.

“Beloit has been able to do wonders with their riverfront, and now I believe it is our turn as a city to show off our beautiful riverfront property. I would rather use grant money and donated time or contributions before we had to raise taxes or borrow for such projects.”

Marklein: “The impending parking plaza decision will present Janesville with a rare opportunity to reinvent the downtown riverfront area. Currently, grant money is being pursued to fund conceptual plans. A public/private partnership to realize a shared community vision is an investment in Janesville worthy of consideration. A key element in the success of the area will be attracting young people and families and the array of local shops, restaurants and activities to live in and or visit the downtown riverfront.”

Severson: “The city has completed a downtown development plan with local business leaders. Allowing private developers to implement destination attractions will minimize any potential tax increase.”

Smythe: “The downtown would likely benefit from a large project such as described. However, I could only support such a venture if I was convinced that it would provide enough economic activity to benefit the community as a whole. I can envision spending a lot of tax dollars with limited return if we are not very careful. A detailed cost benefit analysis would be needed.”

Q: A committee continues to work its way through a seven-year sidewalk plan, making recommendations to council members on what streets should have sidewalks in areas that do not have them. Would you support the latest sidewalk plan? Do you generally favor sidewalks? Are they ever needed?

Would you support using taxpayer money to fix sidewalks in subsequent years after property owners have paid to install them, as was suggested by one council member?

Broda: “A citizen task force was put into place to provide feedback, direction and input on the sidewalk plan. I await their decision.

“Sidewalks, particularly in school traffic flow and high traffic areas, are necessary. During this time of economic difficulty, I feel there are more pressing matters that affect the quality of life for our citizens but will respect the decision of the task force.

“With the current information available to make that decision, I would say no (to paying for future maintenance of sidewalks).”

Fitzgerald: “The success of any plan often has to do with timing. I don’t support the current sidewalk plan. When our national economy is struggling and many people are unemployed, it is the wrong time to be burdening homeowners with the cost of sidewalks.

“I don’t generally favor sidewalks. They are not used that much, are expensive and create a liability for the homeowner in the winter. Most children don’t walk to school anymore. I have owned two homes in Janesville, and neither one had a sidewalk. One was built in the 1970s. The city council has spent too much time talking about sidewalks and not enough time talking about jobs.”

Fitzgerald would not use city money to fix private sidewalks. “This is a liability that would continue forever and have an unknown cost.”

Liebert: “I have opposed the seven-year sidewalk plan for the past two years, but I support the task force and (its) recommendations. As one of the members of the task force, I believe it’s a great compromise of the ‘pro-sidewalk’ and ‘anti-sidewalk’ elements of the community.

“The task force has been incredibly thorough in (its) work, and I believe the council should heed (its) advice. Sidewalks are a positive thing for our community, especially for the elderly, disabled and children who may require them. I also believe that not every part of the city needs them, and that’s why the task force has been such a productive force in this debate.

“I do support general tax funds going toward repair of sidewalks. Current city policy requires that homeowners pay for their installation—the least the city can do is help offset costs of repairs. If sidewalks are the for the general good of the community, then some tax dollars should go toward repairs.”

Marklein: “I would support the final consensus arrived at by the sidewalk committee. The methodology they applied should have been utilized years ago—a thorough systematic review of Janesville’s neighborhoods and transportation network.

“Sensible sidewalks belong along arterial and collector streets in areas where pedestrian traffic is anticipated. I do not see the benefits of sidewalks in established neighborhoods and some industrial/manufacturing areas.

“I would not support taxpayer money to repair existing sidewalks. Financial or physical hardship cases could be an ideal candidate for a potential volunteer community service project.”

Severson: “I will support the decisions of the committee. The process was implemented to allow input for all parties through the consensus model. I favor citizens having input on amenities that affect them and for which they will have to pay.”

Severson does not support the city paying to fix sidewalks that are already installed.

Smythe: “It was a mistake to open this ‘can of worms’ in the first place. But what is done is done. The council should be consistent and respect the work done by the sidewalk committee.

“I do not favor sidewalks in all areas. Some sub-divisions were developed without the intention of putting in sidewalks, and that is just fine. Property owners have a right to know the extent of their sidewalk responsibility when they purchase a property. The city should not change the rules ‘mid-stream.’ As long as property owners are initially informed of their obligation to pay for sidewalk maintenance, I see no problem with it. If the city dictates addition of a sidewalk after the fact, perhaps the cost should be shared by the taxpayers.”

Q: Any ideas on how to deal with stray animals? Would you support using taxpayer money to help the humane society build a new facility?

Broda: “I would like input from experts from the area to provide cost-effective alternatives to the current strategy of handling stray animals and working together to resolve the issues.”

Fitzgerald: “I would be willing to look at using taxpayer money for a new humane society facility. Once again, it would depend on the proposal and the cost.”

Liebert: “I support the current city council policy of working with Rock and Dane County humane societies when it comes to the housing and transportation of animals. At the current time, I would not support tax dollars (for) the construction of a new humane society building.

“I would support the city having its own facility and leasing space to other cities, towns and villages who want to contract with the city for animal control services. I have not been completely happy with the Rock County Humane Society’s costs to the city and believe we could possibly do animal control cheaper and more efficiently ‘in house.’ ”

Marklein: “With the recent turmoil at the Rock County Humane Society, I would encourage patience and allow the RCHS time to reorganize both management and their operations. I do not think this is the time to build a new facility.”

Severson: “Caring for animals impacts everyone. As a community, we need to develop the solution to meet everyone’s desire at the most economical cost by including members of the community in the decision process.”

Smythe: “I would not favor using taxpayer money for this purpose. However, anything the city can do—barring spending our limited tax revenue—to assist the humane society should be considered.”



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