Local Road Funding Conversation Initiated by Strong Towns Member Gains Statewide Attention

Photo by  famartin

Photo by famartin

A few weeks ago, Strong Towns got word of a news story about one of our members, Steve Arnold, who serves as mayor of Fitchburg, WI. The headline was “Mayor suggests privatizing culs-de-sac to emphasize need for road funding” and it discussed the mayor’s “letter to the City Council that suggested the suburb could privatize culs-de-sac, leaving residents on the hook for maintenance.” Naturally, we were intrigued by this approach to road funding as it’s one we’ve covered before on our site. So I gave Mayor Steve Arnold a call to find out the story behind these headlines. It turns out there’s a lot more to it than the many media stories on the topic would have you believe.

First, we need to go back to 2013 when Steve first learned about Strong Towns. At the time, he was on the city council and not yet the mayor. He explained “I had this friend and colleague in an adjoining village, Hans Noeldner, who urged, ‘You have to read this blog!’ I said, ‘I have no time to read anything new’ but Hans told me about an event happening in Madison. So I went, and the Curbside Chat was life-changing.”

Inspired by the talk, Steve went back to his city and raised $3,000 to have Chuck give another Curbside Chat in Fitchburg in January 2014. “We had a great turn out of about 150 from all over the region,” he said, “including more than a dozen elected officials.”

In advance of the Curbside Chat, he prepared some local case studies, including one on road maintenance financing. Fitchburg is mostly suburban-style development, which means lots of roads, but, as we’ve seen in countless explorations of property tax payments per acre, also lower taxes than more compact, downtown development. “People wonder why I object to all these single-story, large-lot houses,” said Steve. “They increase our road infrastructure needs, but don’t increase the tax base enough to cover it.”

That proved to be exactly the case in Steve’s examination of Fitchburg’s road resurfacing costs. He calculated that the city only had enough money in the current budget to resurface every 75 years. That’s a serious problem, because pavement typically lasts about 25-30 years. “We were deep into the Growth Ponzi Scheme,” Steve explained.

Soon after he was elected Mayor in April 2015, Fitchburg undertook its annual capital improvement plan (CIP). Steve began asking the hard questions: “I wanted to know how much we needed to sustainably maintain our streets and roads.” The city was currently spending $850,000 per year to repair local roads, but city engineers told the mayor that Fitchburg should be spending closer to $1.1 million annually in order to cover the true maintenance costs.

When Mayor Steve presented this information to the city council, they responded that $1.1 million was simply too expensive. “We were under a budget crunch,” said Steve. “The City Council wanted to keep it at $850,000.” The following fall, during the budget debate, the Common Council further reduced 2016 spending, to $500,000.

For 2017, Mayor Steve proposed a middle ground—spending $950,000, then increasing that amount by $50,000 each year. “That would still be inadequate,” he explained, “but at least we’re going toward a more sustainable level.”

He wrote a cover letter to the Capital Improvement Plan that explained his position (see page 56 of this document). Here is an excerpt (emphasis added):

One area that suffered in last year’s budget was road resurfacing (project #3319) […] I am well aware that the Council has little taste for immediately increasing this funding to a sustainable level (about $1.1 million/year to resurface every 30 years) and resurfacing the backlog over 2-3 years using borrowing over ten years. So for 2017 I propose to fund road resurfacing for $950,000, increasing that amount toward a sustainable level by $50,000/year over the following four years […

Without significant new funding, our roads will continue to get worse. Funding can be via the tax levy, changing policy to assess part of the cost to adjacent property owners, or new ideas not yet considered. We can also consider privatizing roads now maintained by the public, such as culs-de-sac. None of these options are attractive, but we owe it to residents to honestly address this funding shortfall.

This is looking an inconvenient truth in the eye and figuring out what to do about it.

That comment about culs-de-sac was one sentence in a cover letter of more than a thousand words, but it was a controversial idea and soon word got out. ”Political adversaries broadcast the out-of-context quote to residents living on culs-de-sac, including a former mayor,” said Mayor Steve “She complained to me saying, ‘This is irresponsible.’ I said, ‘This is looking an inconvenient truth in the eye and figuring out what to do about it.’” Soon multiple media sources got word of the letter and covered the story.

The Mayor was not sincerely proposing the privatization of culs-de-sac, but he was making an important point that the current road funding plan was untenable. Nonetheless, when local media got word of the letter, they grabbed on to that contentious privatization concept and ran with it.

Mayor Steve stands by his assertion that privatizing culs-de-sac would not be feasible or desirable, but “clearly the roads could at least be gravel” he said, noting a recent Strong Towns article on the topic.

“Roads are getting worse,” Mayor Steve explained. “The council is refusing to pay the true cost and thinking magic will help them.”

I asked him whether he thought the city council would eventually move in the direction for which he’s advocating. He responded that after he submitted his CIP, they came out with what he called “probably a world record of 58 amendments.” Several were about roads.

“They felt that I gave them an irresponsible budget,” said Mayor Steve, “so on July 26, they voted it down. We’re now scrambling to figure out what to do. They don’t want to raise taxes, but they don’t want to have crappy roads either.”

There is a bright note to the story though, which will interest Strong Towns readers: Six years ago Fitchburg adopted the first SmartCode in Wisconsin. A recent update removed parking minimums for any development in a SmartCode area. So far, the results of SmartCode adoption have been positive. One of the other local case studies Steve conducted for the 2014 Curbside Chat looked at tax base per acre for different development types. “SmartCode urban development had more than double the tax value per acre than recent, small-lot, single-family development,” explained Mayor Steve, “and more than four times the value per acre of a typical large-lot, conventional, residential development.”

With a Strong Towns-focused mayor like Steve Arnold at the helm, we’re hopeful that fiscal sustainability will continue to be a growing priority in Fitchburg.

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