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Friday, September 13, 2019

Monterey Bay Contractor Gets Stuck In City Hall Muck

Wow. Will the scandals and cover-ups at Janesville city hall ever come to an end?

New revelations about interactions between a contractor and city officials regarding restoration work in Monterey Bay show a carefully plodding administration withholding important information with an intent to deceive.

According to FOIA documents gathered by a local Facebook page, The Rock, Janesville officials tried to either plead ignorance or pretend like they're not obligated to offer any information about the levels of toxic contamination they were aware of unless asked, instead hoping a contractor would unwittingly bury under acres and acres of muck first.

The Janesville Gazette editorial predictably attempts to soften the city's responsibility in this disturbing episode by blaming both sides. However, the contractor appears only guilty of seeking more information and additional testing to clear the air.

City officials involved in the cover-up are wasting no time to snuff the scandal out by respinning the storyline while a slew of documents tell a story of indifference in the city's responses to the contractor. Even the Wisconsin DNR, other than washing their hands clean of any responsibility, appears unwilling to commit or disclose any information regarding the Monterey controversy.

As a writer with a strong opinion, I don't want to color the work of the excellent citizen investigative journalism provided by the Rock on this issue. So, I encourage any of my readers who care about Janesville and the pattern of behavior in our local government to visit The Rock Facebook for more information on this extremely important matter.

For those new to this concerning issue, I suggest scrolling down the Rock's Facebook page to at least the Sept. 6th post titled, "The problem in Monterey Bay" and work your way up to bring you up to date.

Read it for yourself. You decide.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Shell Game: To Keep Up With Peer Cities, Janesville Water Rates Jump 53%

You probably have heard by now.

The state's PSC panel approved Janesville's unprecedented 53% water rate increase. That's right. Not a 2%, 3% or a 5% increase. 53%. That's a five followed by a three. Fifty-three. After approving the massive increase, officials on the PSC praised Janesville for "taking its medicine" to pay cash for water mains and said other Wisconsin communities should follow their lead. Again, this is a state-run panel praising a city for raising fee rates astronomically, not lowering them, as a result of decades of efficiencies and growth plans. If you believe that.

To look into the history of the city administration's rate hike request, we have to go back to 2016 when I predicted that due to the city's downtown TIF District among other factors, the city will begin putting the squeeze on Janesville homeowners. I wrote in 2016, "With commercial assessed values declining and future assessed growth quarantined in TIF’s – the people left holding the bag and a much larger share of paying for general fund operations are the residential property owners." Some folks might say that was an easy call, that things go up and higher taxes pay those costs. True I suppose. But keep in mind the city's ARISE design, now into its tenth year, is meant to induce growth and according to the rules, expand the base and lower the rates.

After having our quarterly water bills (water, waste and fire protection) double over the last five years, some city ambassadors would logically expect a rate cut during all of this reported ARISE growth. Right? No, instead they're now saying if we don't raise taxes and fees, we will face greater debt. Something isn't working, but that is the premise behind their water rate increase. They also warned us that if Janesville is unwilling to accept those increased tax obligations, our local economy could death spiral. Their words. Not mine. So let's move on to 2017.

In 2017, the city manager, Mark Freitag, created a "peer city fee and tax matching machine." No, I'm not joking. Freitag created a job position at city hall for someone to comb through fees in other Wisconsin cities and flag any Janesville fees that may be falling below the amounts charged in peer cities. In effect, flagged fees aren't a response to an expected budget shortfall or cost metrics but are sent to the city council for increases. Apparently, some city officials will raise taxes and fees for no other reason than a deep-seated resentment felt that residents might be getting off cheap. This tax and fee hiking ritual is done every year.

And so it was. After several years of water rate hikes, the city still had room to match peer city water rates. All they needed was a reason.

In 2018, Freitag, driven by consultants and rubber stamped by our failed city council, put in a request to the PSC for a 53% water rate increase to pay for replacement water mains. The state only recently OKed the city's request. It should be noted that the Janesville Gazette reports the approval as a "state order." That is not correct. The city is raising water bills by choice. Nothing prevents the city from cancelling the rate hike.

Supposedly, and I didn't research this, the city was already spending $3.5M on water mains budgeted annually and paid for with borrowed money. What this water rate increase does is allow the city to cut General Fund budgeted revenue draw (borrowing) momentarily, "Look ma, we cut $3.5M from our city budget!" and replace it with $3.5M cash in water bill collections. There's the shell game. Shell games are a matter of timing and intent.

According to Math, the 53% hike in the Janesville water rate will confiscate $80.5M from residents over the next 23 years. According to their Logic, this is needed because without it the city claimed its capital reserve was projected to finish $11.3M in the red by 2043. What a deal!

But the shell game is needed because underlining the city's budget mismanagement and failed growth policies is a perfect storm coming of major property tax increases on Janesville's residential taxpayers that is as historic as the 53% water rate increase.

My early findings showed that in order to keep the appearance of their growth plans as budget neutral as possible to show it's working, the city would have to cut about $7M from its annual budget. An impossible task given the wild spending mentality of the Freitag administration. But this $3.5M water rate increase acts as a back door to artificially cut budgeted draws while making no actual cuts in programs and services.

Yes, the state requires the $3.5M be spent on water mains, an expense however previously paid from General Fund notes. We can argue over who is responsible for water main replacement, but this in effect conveniently shifts a portion of the expected historic property tax increase on water utility customers.

After constant rate and fees increases since the day Freitag was hired, all he needed was a better reason to match peer cities on water rates and he found it in the water mains.

Drink up!!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Paul Ryan Scouting For Home In DC

According to a scoop from Politico, Paul Ryan will be moving his family out of Janesville to a suburb of DC.

Politico Excerpt:
But for a man who prided himself on going back to Janesville each weekend, the move is notable.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Janesville Officials and Newspaper Feel Cheated Out Of State aid, Lash Out At Wisconsin Communities.

In case you missed it, the Janesville Gazette posted an awful if not disturbing editorial, titled, "Other Cities Playing Janesville As Fool In Scheme" on Sunday attacking the cities of Beloit, La Crosse and Appleton, and Wisconsin communities in general for what the newspaper claims has been a conspiracy to cheat Janesville out of state shared revenue.

The Gazette's allegations are drawn from charts slapped together by the Wisconsin Policy Forum showing Janesville near the bottom in state aid and road maintenance spending compared to peer cities since the early 2000's. Because of that the newspaper states matter of factly those cities have been conspiring against Janesville and playing us for a fool. Their editorial ends with, "Cities such as Appleton can no longer rely on people's ignorance to perpetuate this shared-revenue scheme. We're wise to it, now."

Shockingly, the Janesville newspaper is not alone in their conspiracy theory. During the state's Joint Finance Committee hearing held in April, Janesville city manager and the police chief alluded to a deep resentment they apparently hold against Wisconsin communities. The city manager Mark Freitag asked and I quote, "How long must Janesville residents subsidize state shared revenue distributions to winning communities?" JPD Chief Moore later said he supports the 2% increase in state shared revenue but asked that not all Wisconsin communities should receive additional distribution because he feels Janesville has been cheated.

Wow. Very bizarre.

I totally get the request and support for more state aid, but to literally ask that others should not share in the same award?

Financially, there's no reason why many cities in Wisconsin should lobby for a change in the state aid formula as there are just as many satisfied with it to those that aren't. But to turn it into an active conspiracy and feel intentionally cheated?

The Gazette's, City Manager's and Police Chief's talking points are so similar it is hard not to believe they are reciting from a deeply partisan playbook of divide and conquer victimhood politics spread by city hall operatives.

On the other hand, the Janesville Gazette and those running city hall endorsed Forward Janesville's lobby efforts to shift hundreds of millions in state aid away from local roads to enumerate funding for the I39/90 expansion. So, if anyone should be upset and hold resentments, it should be those communities from all over the state, including Janesville residents, that lost local road funding over the last ten years due to the endorsed legislative agenda and lobby efforts of Forward Janesville. It was Forward Janesville and their I39/90 coalition spearheaded by TDA lobbyist Craig Thompson, now the director of wisDOT (I want to scream) for his reward, who tilted the tables against local road funding.

Thompson's connection to Forward Janesville also helps explain why his department tied any extra state money for local roads in Evers budget to economic development. It's payback time!!

When Forward Janesville is involved, you can bet higher taxes are on the way for everyone else. Janesville now has a municipal vehicle tax thanks to Forward Janesville.

What a web they weave.

You can read about Forward Janesville's statement against state aid for local road funding here and here. Keep in mind that the Janesville city council ENDORSED a group whose mission was to cut off state funding for local city streets.

Note: I'm not a Janesville official or elected representative, but I strongly disagree with the Gazette's and city official's allegations, resentment and characterization of Wisconsin communities. That is not who we are in Janesville. I hope.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Silence Is Support: Janesville School Board Sold Out Children's Education For Developer

Perhaps it was bad timing OR great timing depending on your perception, but Janesville school board members recently voted themselves a $200 a month stipend. Personally, I think pay, raises or any form of compensation for the school board or city council should always go to referendum. I just believe that lawmakers slash local board members should not have the power to give themselves pay, raises or other taxpayer funds when they feel like it. But that's for another story.

But, what makes the Janesville school board pay decision exceptionally egregious if not totally damning in their fiduciary responsibility as a unit of local government is the fact that within the same week, not one board member or administration official stepped up to defend local taxpayers or school children against a recent city council deal exempting (refund) property taxes for a connected developer of a 260 unit apartment building for the next 17 years. That's right, 260 families paying competitive market-rate to a development firm, with property tax embedded into their monthly rent bill, will contribute NOTHING to police, fire, city operations, local roads and schools for the next 17 years and get this, ...the city justified their decision by claiming the assistance was necessary to ensure a reasonable rate of return for the developer. Their words. Not mine.

Of course nobody wants to deny a developer a reasonable rate of return. But it certainly should not be the taxpayers responsibility or come at the expense of a child's education to ensure that margin. The school board was silent.

On the surface this is nothing new for Janesville's dysfunctional economic planning. In order to keep their "but/for" demand of TIF District law honest, the city practically PROHIBITS development without TIF subsidies and has mortgaged off the best chance for tax revenue growth for the next 25 years. What makes this recent "incentive" deal so much more wrong than other kickback deals the city slapped together for developers, is the cost incurred on the community from those 260 families. That cost over 17 years is estimated at $7.6 million. So it's a double hit.

Mind you, this isn't about benevolence or hardship for those families or the developer. There is no hardship on their part. This is not low-income housing. They ARE market-rate. Besides not opposing the city's wrong-headed deal with the developer, the school board so far hasn't offered any plans for raising funds to pay for the education of children from those 260 families for the next 17 years. As it stands, somebody will be paying much more than their fair share in property taxes once again. That somebody is you and me.

This entire episode comes on top of early reports showing Janesville homeowners are about to get hit with a 3% shift increase in the overall general property tax burden shared with commercial property owners. So the school board's immediate priority was making sure they got some property tax relief for themselves.

For the record. Janesville school board members are: Steve Huth, Jim Millard, Greg Ardrey, Michelle Haworth, Karl Dommershausen, Kevin Murray, Cathy Meyers, Dale Thompson, Lisa Hurda.

Lars Pripp, Peace and Justice Activist

Lars Pripp, a Marine Veteran who was often seen in the Veterans For Peace and Justice rallies on South Main in Janesville on Tuesday afternoons, passed away at his home in Beloit on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. He was 71.

He will be missed.


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Boom: Janesville City-Wide Tax Assessment Hammers Homeowners and Renters

When Forward Janesville lobby operators said Janesville residents must accept increased tax obligations, they weren't joking.

The preliminary numbers from the city's property tax re-valuation look extremely bleak for homeowners and renters in Janesville.

Folks, I'm not talking about tax rates, TIF Districts or the effects from Dark Store loopholes here. I'm focusing strictly on the share of the total cost paid by residential property taxpayers into the General Fund VERSUS commercial and manufacturing property to run local government and schools in Janesville. A three point shift might not seem like a lot at first glance, but this is a massive shift of tax burden on residential property taxpayers taking place in just one year's time - from 2018 to 2019.

If you understood how the Dark Store loophole works and the adverse effects it had on your tax bill and voted to close it in last year's county-wide advisory referendum, think of this tax shift from the city-wide re-val in the same way - but MUCH MUCH larger - like a dark store tax shift on steroids. Put it this way, when Janesville paid $850K in dark store refunds during 2017, that payout represented about one-half of one percent tax burden shift from business to residential. And, it drove us to a referendum!!

City of Janesville Facebook post:
The City completed a city-wide revaluation this year. Revaluations are revenue neutral, and redistribute each property owner’s share of the total tax to be collected based on fair market values. This redistribution is driven by the average assessment change, which for 2019 is 25%. Property owners whose assessment change reflects the average change of 25% should expect to pay about the same in property taxes. Property owners whose assessment change is above the average should expect to pay more in property taxes. Properties below the average assessment change should expect to pay less in property taxes.

Notice how the city references only the average assessment increase of 25% and the general term, "property owners."

Make no mistake, residential properties assessed value increased an average 31% in that 25% field and comprised roughly 69% of assessed value taxable in 2018. For 2019, the burden increases to 72%. That means regardless of all other factors including the tax rate, unless the city gains a $6M windfall and uses it for tax relief or cuts its budget by 10%, residential property owners will pay noticeably more in taxes on the next bill. Commercial, retail and manufacturing properties will pay relatively less.

Clearly, the city-wide re-valuation is not revenue neutral or tax burden neutral for homeowners. An increase in our home's assessed value should not equal a sudden increase in our share of the tax burden. If after shoveling millions of tax dollars into commercial developments and business properties results in less value and fewer taxable assets sharing the burden, perhaps it's time to rethink growth strategies and shrink local budgets accordingly. Because whatever it is city leaders are doing - it failed.

SOURCE: 2018 municipal assessed values were gleaned from Wisconsin Revenue

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Shameless: On Taxpayers Dime, Area Officials Jump To Advocate For Politician

Sound the trumpets!! Da-dee-da-daaaaa. Da-dee-da-daaaa. Paul Ryan's former driver and hand-picked clone, Bryan Steil, organized a photo opportunity with area officials and ranking law enforcement officers to help him announce his first piece of House legislation.

His bill, touted as tackling human traffic within his district's communities, doesn't send more federal dollars to help local agencies battle the crisis. Instead, his bill purports to penalize foreign countries that don't do enough to prevent international human trafficking. Or something.

So what's the issue? For starters, there is no issue. At least not in Wisconsin's First Congressional District. Local law officers and city employees appearing with Steil could not name even one case in their jurisdictions related to Steil's legislation. So why were they there if they had no cause or effect for issue advocacy?

They were there for Bryan Steil and his first act as congressman. The candidate and incumbent.

The only thing missing from his support group were Bryan Steil For Congress tee-shirts.