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New Berlin grapples with road upgrades

Sean Ryan
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New Berlin’s street budget is more than five times what it was in 1995, but the city’s roads have worsened.

And as city officials consider increasing the budget by millions of dollars to smooth the streets, they also are skeptical about whether there is enough money to solve the problem.

Mayor Jack Chiovatero said state limits on local tax increases probably will prevent the city from increasing the street resurfacing budget from $1.9 million this year to $3.2 million in 2010. And it will take a strong economic recovery and a lot more money in city coffers if New Berlin is to reach its goal of building up its street budget to nearly $6 million by 2016, he said.

“If I look at today’s budget, the situation we’re in with cuts from the state and everything, it’s sad,” Chiovatero said. “I don’t think we can do it.”

City engineers, at the request of the New Berlin Board of Public Works, compiled a spending plan that would erase the city’s backlog of deferred projects by 2016 and prevent project logjams.

To finish the job, the city must fix about 14 miles of road a year for the next six years, said Ron Schildt, New Berlin division engineer for streets and transportation. The city fixed just more than six miles in 2009.

The task will require steady budget increases until the city reaches its spending goal in 2016.

“In these times, it’s probably not going to happen,” Schildt said. “But (the plan) gives everybody a little better idea of why things are happening.”

Schildt said he remembers when, in the late 1990s, the city increased its street budgets from the $350,000 dedicated in 1995. But steady increases since then have not kept up with rising construction costs and more expensive projects, he said.

New Berlin spends more but paves fewer miles.

“We did have a program to try to get us up to a million a year,” Schildt said. “That was our goal in the late 1990s, to get up to a million. But, obviously, the cost of asphalt has almost doubled in the past two years.”

Chiovatero, who said the re-election he won this year was based primarily on a debate over how to rebuild Calhoun Road, said the city rates road smoothness based on a 1-10 scoring system — a widely used, but complicated, method called PASER developed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Unless you are on a road that’s really been deteriorated, nobody’s ever said anything about roads,” Chiovatero said, “except for one or two with side streets they want redone and Calhoun Road.”

Local governments should not base spending decisions on complicated rating systems, said Chris Kliesmet, executive administrator of the tax watchdog group Citizens for Responsible Government Network. Elected officials must explain budget limitations, tell people to decide where roadwork fits in with other city services and live with the money left over for street projects, he said.

“The amount of money gives a half-a-grade upgrade in my roads, or that amount of money doubles the grade of my fire department,” Kliesmet said. “Maybe I’ll spend the money on fire departments instead of roads.”

Instead of deciding roads should be rebuilt based on a 1-10 rating, cities should prioritize projects based on the number of complaints from residents, Kliesmet said.

“If they want to handle the quality issue, that’s one good way,” he said. “What are your customers saying?”

Chiovatero said he does not want to stop fighting for road money, no matter how indifferent residents may be to street resurfacing. If streets go bad, it makes it harder to attract people and companies to the city, he said.

If lenders notice poor quality, bond ratings could go down and project costs could go up, Chiovatero said.

“Roads are an asset,” he said, “just like all of our buildings are — a fire station or City Hall.”

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