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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 0.0° F  Fair
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Madison pols punt on Overture
Daunted by consequences, council pushes for more time
Kerr: 'This is not accountability.'
Kerr: 'This is not accountability.'

For the past six months, a decision has been hanging over the heads of Madison Common Council members - whether to take ownership of the Overture Center for $1 as part of a plan to resolve its $29 million debt and restructure management, or risk letting the center "go dark."

In recent weeks, that decision has gotten even more complicated, as alternative plans were floated and people weighed in from all sides.

The reckoning was supposed to happen Tuesday night, when the council would dig into the details and decide once and for all which was the best plan. But in the end the council, paralyzed by uncertainty and without a clear consensus, put off voting on a plan in the early morning hours Wednesday. The meeting ended around 4 a.m.

Instead, it agreed to have representatives sit down with Overture's fundraising arm, 201 State Foundation, donors and the banks to try to hash out an arrangement that would satisfy as many concerns as possible by the Dec. 31 deadline.

"We have four different models and 21 amendments to one of those models," said Ald. Julia Kerr. "How are we ever going to make this decision at 1 in the morning? This is not accountability."

Others wanted to press on. "We have to keep doing our job," said Ald. Bridget Maniaci. "Everybody knew it would be a late night."

During the council deliberations, the option that seemed to have most support - creating a public authority to manage Overture - is also the one that the 201 State Foundation doesn't support and might require legislative action.

Mary Berryman Agard, a consultant working on the city's cultural plan, said the council was in uncharted territory. "Whether you act tonight or not, there is no way to escape the fact that you will continue to be in a period of experimentation."

She also said the Overture Center is too big to belong to any one group. "Everybody is scared to own the thing. Well, everybody needs to take it."

But several council members spoke of a breakdown of trust among players that makes moving ahead difficult.

Council President Mark Clear, in an attempt to rouse his colleagues to act, said that if the council didn't resolve the matter before the sun came up, "the take-away message will be we failed."

That angered Ald. Chris Schmidt: "All of us here have been burning ourselves out doing everything we can to come up with a solution. We've had a series of plans for this thing that failed. We had a refinancing that failed. The other side can give us more time or let it go dark."

Covering it in the press

Toward the end of the second recess at Tuesday night's marathon council meeting, around 12:30 Wednesday morning, Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele left the meeting.

It did not go unnoticed. At the council's October meeting, several of Pham-Remmele's colleagues left in protest of her drawn-out questions, breaking quorum and bringing the meeting to an end.

Ald. Steve King, one of those who walked out in October, pointed at Pham-Remmele's empty chair and groused to reporters: "Are you going to be covering this in the press that she walked out and she's not going to be debating this?"

Saving for a rainy day

One element of Dane County's $500 million budget just signed by County Executive Kathleen Falk that got little attention was a $1 million hike in the county's reserve fund, to $3.25 million.

In recent years, the county has been criticized for having too small a reserve. The city of Madison, in contrast, expects to have about $27.5 million in its reserve fund by the end of next year, says Madison Comptroller Dean Brasser. And even that amount, about 12% of the city's operating budget, is still a little less than the 15% he would like it to have.

Reserve funds represent the difference between assets and liabilities, not money sitting in a city or county bank account. Some of the money isn't readily available. Brasser gives an example: The city has loaned money to the water utility; this appears on the books as an asset, but "we can't guarantee they could pay it back today."

Reserve funds, however, do affect a municipality's bond rating, and thus how cheaply it can borrow money. And Dane County's rating recently fell from triple A to double A plus.

Go, Badgers!

UW-Madison football fans aren't the only ones cheering at the Badgers' probable Rose Bowl berth. It also means a potential windfall in sales tax revenue for Dane County, as fans buy the latest in Badger fashion.

"I'm really happy the Badgers are going to the Rose Bowl, which will help our sales tax," says Supv. Dianne Hesselbein. "I know my family has personally invested."

Wisconsin collects 5% sales tax, and the county gets half a percent.

Kevin Phelps, vice president of University Book Store, estimates the Rose Bowl game could mean $500,000 in sales at his store - win or lose.

"Ninety percent of the sales are done by the time the game starts," he says. But, he adds, "We don't know what it's like to lose a Rose Bowl. We've won the last three we've been in."

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