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Thursday, February 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 13.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Madison Common Council approves 2013 operating budget, despite potential mayoral veto
Clear: 'We can't cut ourselves on the way to prosperity or cut ourselves to success.'
Clear: 'We can't cut ourselves on the way to prosperity or cut ourselves to success.'

The Madison Common Council approved a $267.1 million operating budget for 2013 last night, giving an additional $900,000 to the Overture Center. This came over protests from Mayor Paul Soglin, who could still veto the spending plan.

The council also defeated a proposed 25-cent bus fare increase, while still providing some extra funding to Madison Metro.

Before the council voted on an amendment that would boost funding for Overture to $1.75 million, Soglin urged alders to "wake up" and curtail the city's spending and borrowing. He also blasted the Overture Center for a lack of transparency in how it spends its money. [Editor's note: Isthmus associate publisher Linda Baldwin is a member of Overture Center Foundation's board of directors.]

When the Overture Center restructured two years ago, the city promised a $2 million annual subsidy. Soglin noted Wednesday night that the center was told at the time that the agreement could not bind future councils.

Soglin says the arts center has not been forthcoming about how it uses the city subsidy, unlike other community groups the city funds. For example, he said, the city funds Mentoring Positives $12,000 and AIDS Network $26,000. "We have their full budgets. We know what their full budgets are.

"Since you released control of Overture, I could tell you the executive salaries at Overture have almost doubled," Soglin told the council. "And there's not one of you who can dispute that because you don't know. And then you're going to give them almost $2 million."

He also said Overture officials have been deceptive in painting the city subsidy as going for free programs for schools. Students at only five Madison schools attended free programs, he said. The other students came from outside the city.

Soglin showed the council charts displaying how the city's budget has grown rapidly over the past 30 years, faster than the consumer price index. And the share of the budget funded from property taxes has doubled -- it now accounts for about 75%.

"I find it a bit of an irony that someone as old as myself who has been involved for so long is saying, 'Times have changed,'" Soglin said. "This is not the Madison we had 30 years ago. We're not special anymore."

Then he added, "It's a new world.... I love this job. I want to do it right and I know you do too. But we can't be everything for everybody."

Soglin's appeals did not sway the council. Fourteen alders had sponsored a group of amendments (PDF) that boosted Overture's funding. Sixteen council members voted in favor of it, with Jill Johnson, Larry Palm, Satya Rhodes-Conway and Brian Solomon voting against it.

Later in the evening, the budget passed on a voice vote, with just a couple of council members voting no. After approving the budget, Johnson criticized her colleagues: "This is a big package of goodies, guys. I love you all, but you're a spendy bunch. It seems like people are reluctant to say no. Just as in good parenting, no is a good word to say, and frequently."

Ald. Mark Clear countered that austerity wasn't the answer. "We can't cut ourselves on the way to prosperity or cut ourselves to success," he said. "Slashing things will cause our city to not be special and our city to regress."

After the meeting, a dour Soglin refused to say whether he plans on vetoing the budget (PDF), including the 2013 capital budget passed on Tuesday. "Everything I had to say about the budget, I said on the floor."

Because of new restrictions from the state, the city is limited in how much money it can raise through taxes -- unless it gets voter approval through a referendum. The 2013 budget approved by the council raises the tax levy 3.6%, to bring in $193.4 million. The mill rate is up 5.6%, and taxes on the average home will go up 2.4%.

The council used almost all of its allowable taxing authority. It had just another $96,000 it could have raised from taxes.

The mayor has five days after being presented with the budget to act on it. The council would need 14 votes to override a veto. But time is tight. The city must send out property tax bills by Monday, December 10. Those bills take about a day to calculate and a week to prepare and print.

Ald. Mike Verveer said, "I certainly hope the mayor doesn't veto the budget. It'd be unpleasant to relive all of this. But it's his choice to make. We don't have a say."

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