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November levy-hike referendum set by St. Joseph Town Board

The St. Joseph Town Board set a November referendum last week on an annual tax-levy hike to address a crippled road-maintenance budget, but a decision on how much will be sought was postponed until Aug. 21.

The referendum authorization came at the board’s Aug. 14 meeting on a 3-2 roll-call vote after board member Tom Spaniol’s motion to request $140,000 failed 4-1.

The $140,000 figure had been recommended by the town Public Works Committee as the minimum needed for road maintenance in the wake of a severe budget shortfall that allowed only barebones crack-sealing this year and forced the indefinite postponement of major projects.

The deficit also threatens a six-year Pavement Management Plan approved in March that calls for, among other things, about $850,000 in milling-overlay and reconstruction work in each of the next four years, over and above basic repair.

Several board members and other speakers, however, worried that not enough information was immediately available on whether $140,000 would be enough to cover even basic road-maintenance needs.

If not, they said, it would be difficult for the board to ask voters to approve a subsequent levy hike to make up the difference.

“My gut feeling on this is that if we’re going to do this, we should do it for the right amount –- and to be honest, I think ($140,000) is too small a dollar amount,” said board Chairman Dan Gavin in advance of the vote on Spaniol’s motion.

“My concern about doing this right now is that we could probably sell this positively (to local voters), but then, if it’s not enough, it’s hard to go back a second time.”

Fast action needed?

Spaniol, Public Works Committee member Theresa Johnson and other speakers countered that quick action was needed to keep town roads from falling into unacceptable decline.

Johnson noted that road damage and repair costs both accelerate, the longer maintenance is deferred.

Spaniol also noted that as this year’s crack-sealing work has progressed, it has become clear that the township’s roadways are in even worse shape than expected.

“The spiral is getting quicker and quicker and deeper and deeper,” Spaniol insisted. “I don’t believe postponing (a referendum) is the right way to go. … We need to at least get an immediate feeling about what the community’s appetite is.”

Town Clerk/Treasurer Nicole Stewart told the board that a decision must be made by Aug. 25 on how much additional tax revenue will be sought in order to get the referendum on the November ballot.

That amount will be specified at an Aug. 21 special town board meeting.

Said Gavin after the vote: “Hopefully, a lot of people will do a lot of homework before then.”

Spaniol and board members Dan Thompson and Joy Packard voted in favor of the November levy-hike referendum. Gavin and board member Richard Thompson opposed it.

“I don’t think we’re in the crisis that we think we’re in,” Richard Thompson said before the vote. He urged the board, the town Public Works and Finance Committees, and the Plan Commission to cooperate on pinpointing the best course of action and the best method of financing it before moving forward.

Enough study?

Johnson, however, insisted that the Public Works Committee had already deliberated thoroughly on the matter.

“We’ve worked very, very, very hard to get to this point,” said Johnson, who presented two Public Works levy-hike referendum scenarios to the board in July –- one for $140,000 and a second for $231,000.

The $140,000 option would increase the town’s portion of local tax bills by 13.5 percent, while a $231,000 increase would boost it by 22 percent.

According to town Zoning Administrator Jay Kimble at last week’s board meeting, a 14 percent annual levy hike would add about $66 to a last-year’s local tax bill of $3,000.

Neither of the Public Works Committee’s levy-hike scenarios covers major roadway rehabilitation and reconstruction called for in the six-year Pavement Management Plan, Johnson noted. The committee envisions paying for those projects through some combination of future borrowing and management-plan “tweaks,” she said.

“We can’t levy enough for rehabilitation and reconstruction. What we gave you had a lot of thought in it,” Johnson added.

“All the numbers are there … so I don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel. I also believe our financing plan matches the Pavement Management Plan step-by-step.”

Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Adkins and committee member Brian Gullickson, meanwhile, repeated the panel’s July 31 recommendation to the board that “all possible cost-reduction, expense-sharing and income-generating ideas” be explored before deciding to raise taxes.

Adkins and Gullickson also agreed that the Finance Committee should work with Stantec, the town’s public-works and planning consultants, to find “a financially viable method to support the Pavement Management Plan, including but not limited to expanding the plan” over more years “as a means to lower cost over time.”

Board of Review update

In other action last week, the board rescheduled the town’s Open Book and Board of Review for Nov. 5-7 and Nov. 10, respectively.

The meetings had been scheduled for Oct. 27-29 and Oct. 30, but town Assessor Mark Garlic requested more time to complete analysis of new valuation data collected between March and the end of July.

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

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