Ald. David Ahrens is puzzled that the mayor and many Madison Common Council members support subsidizing a Monona Terrace hotel as part of the massive Judge Doyle Square project.
Although many city officials and downtown boosters are sold on it, Ahrens has never met a regular citizen who champions the project, which could take more than $100 million in city subsidies.
"I've never found a single person who thinks this is a good idea," he says. "This is an area where the mayor and the council and senior staff are really far away from where public opinion is on this."
But if Ahrens and other opponents of the project have their way, it will be residents -- not the Common Council or Mayor Paul Soglin -- who have the final say on the $200 million project. On Wednesday, Citizens Against Subsidized Hotels (which uses the acronym CA$H) announced it is seeking to change city ordinance by requiring that any project using $10 million or more of tax incremental financing be approved by referendum. Giving away city land -- which is called for in Judge Doyle Square -- would also trigger a referendum.
The group first needs a vote on the referendum concept. To do so, it must collect 16,331 signatures -- 15% of votes cast in Madison in the last gubernatorial election -- in a 60-day period. CA$H is interpreting the law to mean the 2010 general election, not the 2012 recall. It is kicking off the 60-day period on May 1, with hopes of getting the measure on the November ballot.
If successful, this would trigger a referendum on Judge Doyle Square in April 2015. "CA$H is going to the people," says Andy Olsen, a former alder active with the group. "We want to give voters a chance to reject these unfair, unneeded and highly risky subsidies for this project."
Judge Doyle Square includes rebuilding the Government East parking ramp, building a headquarters hotel for Monona Terrace behind the Madison Municipal Building, and building new office, retail and residential space. The hotel has been the most controversial of the project. Olsen says the city has failed to do due diligence.
"All they do is look at the upside. They don't look at the downside. There's no rigor, no critical thinking," he says. "This would be the largest expenditure in city history, and there are a lot of other priorities people think the city should attend to."
It's not the first time voters have weighed in on Monona Terrace. In 1992, residents opposed to building the convention center also forced a referendum, which was narrowly approved.
Ahrens knows of only two projects -- the Hilton hotel (also in support of Monona Terrace) and Block 89, a massive office and retail project on the Capitol Square -- that have used more than $10 million in TIF.
Olsen says the group wants to give citizens a voice on exceptionally large projects like these. "That's a high enough bar so we wouldn't be having referendums all the time," he says of the $10 million figure. "It provides a safeguard to taxpayers to put a check on massive project subsidies while also allowing smaller, more reasonable projects to proceed."
"It's a tall order," Ald. Mike Verveer says of getting the needed signatures for a referendum.
He's also not crazy about putting the question to voters. "I'm not a big fan of referendums," says Verveer, who supports Judge Doyle Square. "My primary concern is that voters are afforded the most recent accurate information."
Ald. Joe Clausius, another supporter of the project, says he has no problem with a referendum, but would prefer it to be nonbinding. Clausius adds: "The city needs to hear more from the public on this."