The Gazette put out a story attempting to explain why Janesville's tax hike referendum doesn't mention a purpose for the tax revenue it expects to raise - as exposed a week ago by yours truly. In their article, a claim is made that the city resolution initially approving the referendum binds the referendum's revenue to street repairs. I don't buy that premise at all. Plus, who would challenge the city?
The resolution was required by the state to get the referendum on the ballot. Beyond that, the city is bound only by the language in the question. The resolution is a commitment by the Common Council proving they merely support the question to raise the revenue. The rest of the resolution serves as little more than an internal city memo that can be amended or defeated by another resolution at the will of the council at any time. As you can see, the referendum question is written strictly to raise capital with no order to use it for a specific operation or program.
CITY OF JANESVILLE REFERENDUM - QUESTION 1
"Under state law, the increase in the levy of the City of Janesville for the tax to be imposed for the next fiscal year (2015) is limited to .908%, which results in a levy of $29,712,286. Shall the City of Janesville be allowed to exceed this limit and increase the levy for the next fiscal year (2015), by a total of 4.039%, which results in a levy of $30,912,286? If this referendum is approved, the amount of approved increase in the levy will be available to the City only through the year 2019." Yes _____ N_____
It is amazing to see how much time, effort and chatter (not to mention bad advice) administration officials and council members put into the referendum only for the city attorney to say a stock state template he used to compose the referendum resulted in deleting its purpose out of the question. Keep in mind that the final resolution on the referendum's question absent "for street repairs" language was voted on and approved by the city council, regardless of the source the city attorney now claims its template came from.
I contend this was by design.
As a citizen journalist looking for answers on how and why this happened, I prefer to go back to the genesis of the referendum question. For this, I return to a special meeting on the street program held June 10th when Jay Winzenz, the assistant city manager at the time, had this to say ...
June 10th Special Meeting On Street Program
"One thing that that question doesn't include is; what the purpose is. And that's what I think is an important piece of information and as I recall we added that purpose in, when we were considering the question before when the council was considering two different questions, one for public safety and one for street maintenance. From a voters standpoint, I would want that in there so the $2 million or so wouldn't go for some other purpose I did not intend."
-- Assistant Manager Jay Winzenz
Can I say ...bingo?
So if "street repair" language was in the question before, who deleted it in advance of the June 10th special meeting and months in advance of the referendum? On whose orders?
In retrospect, Winzenz was being the straightest arrow in the house. As a voter himself, he apparently empathized with voters and placed their concerns at the top by insisting to legally bind the street program to the extra money. Question is, why couldn't the others?
At that same meeting, Council Member Doug Marklein said it needs to be made clear that the "sole purpose of the referendum was due to state law and levy limits." That means it must be framed as a narrow tax levy question - not a question about street repair or hint that another option exists. Heads nodded approval. No one objected.
As reported in an earlier Gazette article, Marklein also said, "If we go to referendum, we need to keep the wheel tax out of the discussion.”
Why is all that cloak and dagger necessary?
As explained in an earlier posting, if communities want to raise their tax levy beyond the growth of new construction, they must put the question in a referendum for voters. Walker and company took tax levy control away from local elected officials and made that a new law.
However, Janesville officials want residents to think they have absolutely no choice but to raise the street repair money via property tax levy OR if the referendum fails, borrow the money and pay even more over a longer term. This narrative plays off of voters sentiments and helps keep the third option at their disposal - the wheel tax - out of the public discussion.
So, I believe city officials early on planned to keep the subjects of the "wheel tax," a "road tax" or "street repair" out of the referendum (public) question for several reasons.
Most important among them is the city itself is complicit in promoting the legislative agenda of Forward Janesville. That means Janesville "non-partisan" officials supported the politics behind shifting state aid away from local roads to pay for major highway construction and expansions. It's one thing to support expanding the interstate, it's another thing that it comes at the expense of cutting local road aid, resulting in local wheel taxes or tax hiking referendums.
But they succeeded, and afterwards a few council members suggested that if residents have a problem with the shortfalls, they should point blame at state politicians for approving the legislative agenda the council themselves supported. They are being either very disingenuous or just plain ignorant. No disrespect intended, but those are the facts.
For the loss of control regarding tax levies, local officials can point blame at state republicans for tying their hands because it is true. But for the loss of local road aid and its tax hiking remediation, Janesville officials must blame themselves. The problem for area voters is that it's easy to conflict the two for self-interest and political purposes. That's how divide and conquer works.
The second reason to keep streets, wheels and roads out of the discussion is because they want to keep the third option - the wheel tax - out of the discussion. That not only helps keep Forward Janesville's role out of the discussion, but also no one on the council appears willing to raise the current annual wheel tax from $10 to $30, $40 or $50 and have it on their political resume. So I suspect several council member's opposition to the wheel tax is driven by the personal politics of not giving a future opponent for higher office a negative talking point. That's a real sad possibility.
Lastly, the council seems fixated on using scare propaganda to warn taxpayers of dire borrowing consequences IF the referendum doesn't pass. For now, this is where I leave the tax hike referendum. There will be more analysis to follow as we watch the city make some adjustments and ramp up their messaging with the Janesville Gazette, no doubt in tow.
June 10th Special Session Video
Winzenz' presentation about the referendum question begins at 00:16:50.
Marklein can be heard speaking about the sole purpose of the referendum at 00:46:00