STEVENS POINT – On Aug. 9, voters will decide whether to fundamentally change the way Stevens Point handles its road and transportation projects.
A referendum vote will appear on the ballots of Stevens Point voters asking whether an ordinance should be created to require the city to put all road projects costing more than $1 million to a public vote.
The referendum, pushed by Southside business owners, has its roots in the controversy surrounding plans to rebuild Business 51. Supporters say it’s a way to ensure city officials spend tax dollars wisely and would prevent the city from reducing lanes for traffic on Church and Separation streets, adversely affecting existing businesses along the corridor.
Opponents of the referendum say it would cripple city government, make routine road repairs more difficult and discourage economic development.
Stevens Point Public Works Director Scott Bedoon said the ordinance’s requirements could delay routine repairs and increase project costs — at a time of rampant inflation and rising construction costs.
“Prior to these increases, most (but not all) of our recent and future planned projects … were over $1 million,” Bedoon said in an email.
Here are five things you need to know about the referendum and its potential impacts.
CONNECTED:Business 51: After Stevens Point council rejection, voters will decide whether road projects over $1 million should go to referendum
CONNECTED:Business 51’s redevelopment is nearing a milestone, pending council approval next week
What are you voting for?
Passage of the ordinance would require road projects exceeding $1 million to go to a citywide vote. That would include each of the phases for Business 51, but also nearly every road project in the city, Bedoon said.
Kurt Witinsky, deputy executive director of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, said he’s seen ballot initiatives similar to the one in Stevens Point — where a project of a certain approximate dollar amount prompts a public vote — but not one that targets specifically to roads and transport funding. Such ordinances are generally rare in Wisconsin, he said.
The referendum, which will appear on the Aug. 9 ballot for Stevens Point voters, reads:
Prior to the commencement of any physical construction on any municipally funded (in whole or in part) public road or transportation project requiring a municipal capital expenditure of $1,000,000.00 or more, the common council shall submit to the voters a binding referendum for the approval of the project. . Failure of the mandatory referendum would prevent the city from proceeding with the project. The wording of each referendum indicates the specific purpose, location and value of the project. Nothing in this provision shall be construed to preclude the City from exercising its role in the planning or design of such publicly funded projects.
What does the referendum mean for Business 51?
In the language of the ordinance, a yes vote does nothing for the current, tentative plans to restore Business 51.
A successful yes vote, however, would likely send a political message to city leaders about the direction they should take on Business 51. It would likely give opponents of the Business 51 plans leverage to reconsider the project, such as scrapping plans to change the the church Street from four lanes to three lanes.
It’s unclear when there will be an actual vote on any section of the Business 51 project, Bedoon said. There could potentially be a referendum in 2023, he said, to keep the project on schedule or the city could lose funding.
How many urban road projects exceed $1 million?
The city has completed 27 improvement projects since 2013, according to historical capital budgets.
Fourteen of the 27 projects cost more than $1 million, exceeding the threshold required by the proposed ordinance. These projects include reconstruction of Isadore Street, Prentice Street, Ellis Street, Bukolt Avenue and Sixth Avenue; installation of the roundabout on North Division Street; and routine road maintenance projects that target multiple roads.
The 13 projects under $1 million were either routine paving, minor street widening, or reconstruction of smaller streets that exceeded $500,000.
“With construction costs increasing at record rates, projects that didn’t exceed $1 million in the past could easily do so now,” Bedoon said.
The referendum, which will go before voters next month, also does not take inflation into account.
City planners say the referendum could increase costs and delay work on the road.
City planners argue that the ordinance’s requirements will increase project administration costs, such as the need to place routine projects on the ballot and promote the ballot measure.
The ordinance potentially turns routine road and other transportation projects into political election issues every year, Mayor Mike Wisea wrote in a statement in January. “Who can muster enough voters to defeat the road plan unless we fix Road X first?”
The city also routinely groups street projects together to save time in the bidding process and potentially save money on projects by purchasing materials and labor in bulk. If the referendum passes, they will likely have to end this to keep projects under the $1 million threshold.
“Our current staff is already struggling to balance the projects they have, and if we add a few more contracts to oversee, it’s unreasonable to believe they can handle it,” Bedoon said.
To avoid invoking the referendum, the streets department could choose to do fewer road projects in a given year, he said.
Can the City Council repeal the ordinance?
State law prohibits cities from amending or repealing direct legislation for two years after it is passed. A new referendum will be required to change or repeal the ordinance within the two-year period.
For voters who approach the referendum with Business 51 in mind, there are a number of key votes remaining in the next few years before any part of the project is ready to be bid and funded. The earliest construction could begin on the project is 2024, and it could run until 2030.
Therefore, the City Council could repeal or amend the ordinance long before the most controversial parts of the bill are even brought before voters.