Those disagreements played out March 9 during a public forum at the Janesville Public Library sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Forward Janesville and JATV.
Candidates answered questions from moderator Janet LaBrie as well as those submitted by audience members.
Voters will select three council members from the seven candidates when they go to the polls April 5.
The candidates are:
Jim Farrell, incumbent and retired accountant
Richard Gruber, incumbent and Mercy Health System Vice President
Jens Jorgensen, sales professional
Steve Knox, manufacturing professional
Billy McCoy, retired General Motors employee
Paul Williams, former council member 2000-08
Spencer Zimmerman, limousine driver
The full forum can be seen online at www.youtube.com/user/JATVMedia.
Volunteer fire department?
The city faces an $800,000 shortfall in its next budget, and the causes and remedies came up throughout the forum.
A question from the audience claimed a big part of the deficit came about because of Janesville’s new fire station. They wondered if candidates would support going to a volunteer fire department or contracting with a private company for ambulance services.
Jorgensen said he feels safe in the city at all times. "I have full confidence that the fire department, police department and all city services are there to provide those services for the citizens," he said. Jorgensen noted that the city already provides transports to area hospitals and that service is done at a profit, so he didn’t know how switching to a private service would save money.
Knox didn’t need extra time for a lengthy response. "No," was his simple answer.
McCoy said he would be open to the idea. He said he has sons on volunteer fire departments, and with paid lieutenants and captains, the system works well. "I would say that there is a chance I definitely would agree to this," McCoy said.
Williams took exception to the premise that the shortfall was partly due to the fire department. Williams said the shortfall comes from the lack of state shared revenue coming back to the city. He noted how he needed a stent put in and the fire department was there in two minutes. "I would never go with a volunteer fire department for this size city," he said.
Zimmerman emphasized the need for fiscal responsibility in city spending. "I wouldn’t say right now yes or no on an issue like that, but we do need to look at all of our options to make sure we live within our means both locally and on a national level," Zimmerman said.
Farrell was emphatic that he wouldn’t support either a volunteer fire department or privatization of ambulance services. "Many communities that are smaller than us, such as Milton, are struggling with having a volunteer fire department," he said. A recent survey said that citizens value their fire department and rescue service above all else.
Gruber said his simple answer is no and I he disagreed with putting the blame on the fire department. "Nationwide there is a real decline in the number of individuals willing to volunteer," he said. He also pointed out recent discussions in some areas about a countywide fire department because the volunteers aren’t available.
Support for ARISE?
All the candidates agreed on the need to revitalize Janesville’s riverfront, but several of the candidates were cautious in their support for the ARISE development plan.
Williams said the plan needs more study. He wanted to know where the funds would come from and how much each part of the project would cost. He also wanted to know whether it was fully funded by taxpayers or if it was a public-private partnership.
Zimmerman said the city needs to look at the $800,000 budget shortfall first. "We need to scale back the ARISE plan," he said. "We need to look at every dollar that’s being spent and make sure it’s being spent efficiently." If that means scaling back the ARISE plan, then that needs to be done, he said.
Farrell said the first priority is the removal of the parking plaza down. The city currently is aggressively seeking grants to offset the costs. He supports the ARISE plan and said the plan will be a combination of private and public, including developers, city money and grant money. "It is not going to be all on the city of Janesville," he said. "It cannot be."
Gruber also is in favor of ARISE, which he said grew out of the downtown renaissance plan survey. "This is a plan that is going to take roughly 15 to 20 years or more," he said.
Jorgensen said he was generally supportive of the plan because he saw the need for a vibrant downtown to attract people to the city.
Knox said that depending on the support of the downtown and the willingness of the downtown to work together with the city, he would look at supporting at least the first phase of ARISE.
McCoy doesn’t support the project. "I want the necessary priority needs for the city at this time," he said. However, he said he would work with downtown business owners on maintaining and upgrading their buildings to attract businesses.
How will we fix our roads?
Residents voted down an awkwardly written referendum in November 2014 that would have addressed increasingly urgent road repairs. Some candidates urged another referendum, while others suggested other remedies.
Farrell said he supports going back to another referendum. "We came up with a combination of increasing the wheel tax and borrowed money," he said. "Any future remedy will require a combination of financing. We can’t take street funding back to prior levels."
Gruber said road funding could be found within the current budget process. In the past budget the council was able to double the amount of money going into road repair. "We did that with a balanced budget and within our priorities. We have a solution in place," he said.
Jorgensen blamed state limits on shared revenue for Janesville’s road funding problem. He said the formula for calculating shared revenue currently is incorrect. He proposes pressuring legislators to update the formula to bring more money back to the city.
Knox said in the short term, he would support a referendum, "if written properly." Long term, he proposes working with the state to raise money for roads through a half-cent sales tax.
McCoy also supports the half-cent sales tax to fund road repair. He said he would support a three-year tax with a two-year sunset. "At the same time we can avoid a wheel tax," he said.
Williams said he supports another referendum, as long as "all the T’s are crossed and all the I’s are dotted." He said the council needs to sell it to Janesville on why we need the money and what it will be used for. "If they vote it down again ... they’ll have to understand that the roads are not going to get fixed for some tome until we can figure out how to get the money," he said.
Zimmerman said that roads and transportation should be a No. 1 priority. "We need to make sure every dollar is being spent efficiently and we need to make sure we’re living within our means," he said. "We need to make sure we have the infrastructure necessary to create a business friendly environment."