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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Fair
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Battles loom over Madison's funding for transit, arts and parks in Mayor Soglin's budget
Tight budget sets up tough choices

<b>Clear</b>: 'There's going to be a lot of attention around Overture, around beaches and ice rinks, around some of the cuts in streets.'<br>
<b>Rhodes-Conway</b>: 'My number-one priority will be preventing an increase in bus fares.'
Clear: 'There's going to be a lot of attention around Overture, around beaches and ice rinks, around some of the cuts in streets.'
Rhodes-Conway: 'My number-one priority will be preventing an increase in bus fares.'
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Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway will be fighting Mayor Paul Soglin's proposal to hike bus fares by 25 cents in his $266 million budget for next year.

Rhodes-Conway calls the hike -- which comes on the heels of a 50-cent fare hike in 2008 -- "regressive." The bus fare increase is expected to bring in another $600,000 for the city.

"It is safe to say my number-one priority will be preventing an increase in bus fares," Rhodes-Conway says. "Some bus riders, including people like myself who commute to work, can probably absorb that fare increase. But people who are transit-dependent and can't afford to buy a monthly pass, they will be hurt by a fare increase. It would be my preference to lower bus fares. I know that's not going to happen."

But bus fares are just one of many items council members will be battling over as they take up the mayor's proposed 2013 budget, which is slated to raise property taxes by 2.2%. Constrained by a drop in property values as well as by how much he can raise property taxes, Soglin has made some noticeable cuts to city programs.

He is slashing aid to the Overture Center by $1 million, to $850,000. When Overture restructured its organization two years ago, the city promised a $2 million annual subsidy. (Editor's note: Isthmus associate publisher Linda Baldwin is a member of the Overture Center Foundation's board of directors).

The mayor's budget also calls for closing nine city ice rinks, leaving only Tenney, Elver and Vilas rinks open. He would cut lifeguards at seven beaches, leaving guards at only Olbrich, Vilas and Tenney beaches. And he would reduce overtime for garbage crews working the streets during "hippie Christmas" in August, when thousands of students move into new apartments. He's hiking ambulance fees from $600 to $900 for residents and up to $1,000 for non-residents.

The Common Council can make changes to the mayor's budget, and plenty of council members are sure to propose amendments. But the trouble is, there's very little wiggle room. The city has $767,000 more it could spend before it hits the tax levy ceiling of $193.5 million that Gov. Scott Walker created with his budget reforms in 2011. Last year's levy was $186.7 million. Hitting the new ceiling would raise taxes 3.4%.

To raise taxes any higher, the city would have to get approval from voters in a referendum.

At a Board of Estimates meeting Monday night to review the budget, Soglin urged Council members "to make every effort" to keep the tax hike close to 2%.

Ald. Mark Clear says, "In the past, tax increases of 3% or 4% have been the norm," so council members are not used to working within these constraints.

"There's going to be a lot of attention around Overture, around beaches and ice rinks, around some of the cuts in streets," Clear says.

The city is challenged not just by the new tax levy ceiling. The value of all its property has fallen by almost 2% to $20.8 billion this year. Because of this, finance director David Schmiedicke explains, "If the levy did not go up at all, which would be very hard to do, the tax rate would still go up, because property values are falling."

Ald. Bridget Maniaci says the budget underscores how important it is for the city to be growing its economy and property values in order to increase revenues. She is eyeing $50,000 slated for a promotional video as one place for a cut. "There are stronger ways we could work to promote the city," Maniaci says.

Ald. Mike Verveer says the budget process could be fierce, as alders fight over priorities that in better times they all would have supported. He laments that he might have to choose Overture and garbage pickup over park amenities.

"I have to prioritize," he says. "So it will come down to making the difficult decision to vote against some of the other budget amendments that my colleagues will offer."

Soglin plans on proposing two amendments himself. One would preserve a new position in the police department to deal with a new law the city passed, monitoring what people sell to pawn shops. The mayor thought the position -- which costs about $64,000 a year -- hadn't been filled yet, but it has. Soglin will propose adding the money to the budget to save the person's job.

He'll also propose adding $53,000 for extra training expenses for the police department. And he will propose $150,000 to do a consultant study for a proposed bio-digester.

Rhodes-Conway says the mayor did a good job overall.

"The mayor has done a pretty incredible job of filling a $10 million gap he faced," she says. "He deserves credit for that. I might have made some different choices, but that's why we have a process."

She encourages residents to come to the budget hearings or watch them on TV. The Board of Estimates will hold a public hearing on Oct. 30 before voting on it. The budget then goes to the Common Council during the week of Nov. 13, when it will hold additional public hearings and meet every night until it is approved.

Rhodes-Conway encourages suggestions, not just for what to fund, but what to ax.

"What's more useful is if people come and say, 'Here is a thing I can do without and you should cut.'"

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