Want to start an argument? Well, just pop off about the best way to finance street improvements. If death and taxes are the two inevitabilities of life, a third might be finding a way to finance streets. The trouble is, streets are very expensive and no one wants to pay the vast sums of money needed for their improvement.
Basically, there seem to be three schools of thought on street financing. The first is that residents benefit directly from improvements to streets in front of their houses, and therefore should pony up to pay for those improvements.
That school of thought leads to the creation of Special Service Areas or Special Assessments to pay for the improvements. In short, each resident has to pay his fair share of the bill (usually several thousand dollars) over a 10-year period.
The second school of thought believes that while street resurfacing and general maintenance of roads should be paid for by issuing village-sponsored debt, rebuilding streets from scratch should fall on the shoulders of residents.
This is the way that things currently work in Riverside. Two classes are set up: Those fortunate enough to have purchased a house on a street that’s in good enough shape so they, in effect, get a discount on their street improvement vs. those unfortunate enough to live on a street that’s a holy mess.
Then there’s the third school of thought?”that all roads benefit all residents of a municipality and that all residents ought to chip in equally for all improvements to those roads, be it resurfacing or reconstruction.
All three methods are valid, and all come with their own set of problems. Those who claim that specific residents alone should pay for improvements are foisting the improvement of village assets (and roads are assets accounted for in each municipality’s audit) on specific residents and the burden to each resident will be necessarily unequal. Of course, unless residents compare tax bills, no one is really going to know exactly how unequal.
The third option puts the burden on politicians to secure the necessary financing for road improvements, which means?”in the case of non-home rule communities like Brookfield and Riverside?”that politicians will constantly have to go to voters asking for more money for those improvements. Like until the end of time.
Neither of those options is attractive, but at least they are clear. You want streets improved? Here’s the cost. Of course, using the first method, people living on “collector” routes, which qualify for federal matching funds, will make out even better under the first school of thought.
The worst alternative has to be a combination of the two schools of thought. If Riverside needed any clear example of how street improvements and how to fund them can be turned into a lowest-common-denominator political issue, they need look no farther than Brookfield for an object lesson.
In Brookfield, politicians go so far as to say that people getting their streets resurfaced through the issuance of debt are getting their streets for “free.” And while nothing could be further from the truth, it causes nothing but consternation and confusion to those who have to look at a separate line item on their tax bills for street improvements while others appear to get a free pass.
The Riverside village board took a bold and correct step in seeking a referendum to issue bonds for street improvements in 2004. But it didn’t go far enough. Streets are, in fact, a benefit to everyone in a community, and politicians ought to have the courage to sell that fact to voters.
Create a road improvement policy that’s comprehensive and uses one financing source. That way, everyone’s in it together.