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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Daily
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We can build a better Madison budget
Let's restore funds that help create community
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Mayor Paul Soglin's proposed 2013 budget is consistent with his attitude toward governing, which can be summed up in the phrase, "Get off my lawn!" Or more to the point, "Get off my beaches and get off my skating rinks!"

The Common Council can keep the budget fiscally sound while improving its community focus. The Board of Estimates took some steps in that direction earlier this week, but not enough. Here's a complete plan.

First, eliminate the Soglin bus fare increase. Cost to the general fund: $686,000.

Soglin justifies his fare increase by adding service to the Owl Creek neighborhood and to other destinations. But the total cost for service improvements next year is $258,000, while the fare increase produces $686,000. Where's the other $428,000 going? It's essentially a special tax on bus riders to fill his general budget gap.

Second, restore ice rinks and lifeguards. Cost to the general fund: $135,000.

These things help build neighbor-to-neighbor contacts that result in stronger neighborhoods in the long run. It's even harder to understand Soglin's cut when you realize that some neighborhoods are stepping up and taking care of their own ice rinks. They're even willing to pay for the water. So let's try something creative like neighborhood or local business sponsorship of ice rinks or lifeguards. Let's be conservative and say that will yield $25,000 in its first year to offset some of the council's proposal to put back $160,000.

Third, restore $1 million to Overture. Cost to the general fund: $1,000,000.

The city made a good-faith commitment to provide $2 million of annual funding in exchange for Jerry Frautschi and other generous donors paying off the $28 million debt-of-folly that resulted from the stock market gamble that Soglin supported and I opposed. And, before he was mayor, Soglin actually supported $2 million in annual funding. Now, he would renege on his own deal by cutting funding to only $875,000. Moreover, if Soglin's cut goes through, the programs likely to be cut first are the ones that benefit the very communities that should be getting the attention of the mayor's invisible war on poverty.

So now we've got to come up with about $1.8 million to balance the budget. Here's how.

First, cut the mayor's biodigester study. Savings to the general fund: $150,000.

Soglin understands biodigesters because he used to lobby for a company that builds them. Biodigesters essentially turn garbage into energy. It's good environmental policy, but in a budget this tight we don't need the study this year. It's possible that a foundation could support the study to move this otherwise worthy project forward.

Second, cut the mayor's travel budget and Conference of Mayors dues. Savings to the general fund: $25,000.

I lived within a $4,800-a-year travel budget. To date Soglin has already spent $18,000 this year. Where's this guy going? To a lot of U.S. Conference of Mayors meetings. The USCM would be more properly titled the Mayors Ego Gratification Society. It's a waste of the $12,000 in annual dues.

Third, cut the mayor's lip-synching video and send the money to neighborhoods instead. Cost to the general fund: 0.

Soglin wants to follow the lead of Grand Rapids and produce a promotional video with Madisonians lip-synching some catchy tune. Nothing says "come to Madison" like seeing Fred Mohs and Paul Soglin lip-synching "The Way We Were."

Take that $50,000 and put it toward the Emerging Neighborhoods Fund. Soglin, to his credit, kept this program that I began to make small, strategic investments in neighborhoods that were just beginning to show signs of decline. But it's funded at only one-quarter of its original level. Let's at least get it back to $100,000.

Fourth, cut Soglin's study to figure out how to replicate Austin's music scene. Savings to the general fund: $20,000.

The mayor has railed against paying consultants for studies and yet keeps coming up with ever more bizarre new ones. Madison needs to be itself, not Grand Rapids or Austin.

Fifth, cut the mayor's cynically titled "Helping Hands Homeward" program. Savings to the general fund: $25,000.

Soglin's program would pay homeless men and women to get out of town. Out of town to where and to what is a good question we should ask.

Sixth, use more of the borrowing premium. Addition to the general fund: $1.1 million.

Each year when the city goes out to borrow money for capital projects, it gets a premium because of its excellent credit rating. This year the premium was $5.2 million, and the average is about $3 million. There's at least $1.1 million that could be freed up responsibly to help the operating budget.

Seventh, add a $10 surcharge for parking at Overture events. Addition to the general fund: $200,000.

This revenue could go directly to Overture. It would be one way of getting support for this regional arts facility from the more than half of Overture patrons who don't live in the city but enjoy its programming. Why should only city of Madison residents support it?

Finally, there are favorable reestimates of various state aid programs and some fee increases. Addition to the general fund: $300,000.

Under this plan, we haven't added to the mayor's property tax increase, but we have eliminated the bus fare increase while still improving service, we've kept our commitment to Overture while getting non-Madisonians to kick in more, we've added another $50,000 to help challenged neighborhoods, and we've restored neighborhood ice rinks and lifeguards, all while staying within the state's levy limit.

We are a bright, creative and compassionate community. We don't have to have a bleak budget.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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