In a break from recent years, the Madison Common Council did not agonize all night for several days over adopting its 2014 budget. It wasn't so much that the council suddenly figured out the magic of budgeting, but that this year it had so little money to work with.
"From my recollection, this is the smallest number of amendments we've ever had," says Ald. Mike Verveer, the longest-serving member of council, who was first elected in 1995. "The reason there are so few amendments is the levy limit." New limits imposed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have severely restricted how much municipalities can raise taxes.
This year, council members proposed nine capital budget amendments and seven operating budget amendments.
Before 10 p.m. Tuesday, the council approved a $276.2 million operating budget and $224.5 million capital budget -- for which it will raise $198.4 million through property taxes. That's just $500 less than the city is allowed to raise through property taxes.
Despite the restriction on how much it can spend, the council did provide some extra funding for homeless services, including $8,100 for laundry services, $10,000 to help transport people to shower facilities, and $10,000 to fund portable toilets downtown. These programs are intended to fill a gap until next summer, when the county is expected to have a day shelter up and running.
One debate did erupt over funding to construct a permanent, 24-hour-a-day toilet in the downtown area. Ald. Larry Palm had asked for $500,000 in the capital budget for this project. Some colleagues wondered where the figure came from.
"I'm not going to lie to you, it's a random number," Palm responded.
But he added that he didn't know how many toilets were needed or how many unforeseen costs would be involved.
Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff found that Portland, Ore., built "Portland Loos" for only $140,000. Other council members objected to throwing a random number into the pot without first studying the need and costs involved. Palm countered that "the city doesn't do things without money. Someone asked me if this really could happen in 2014 and I said, 'Yes, all it takes is the political will.'"
But the council ended up settling on a smaller random number, agreeing to set aside $300,000 for the project.