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Sunday, February 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist and Breezy
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Drinking and riding
Do alcohol ads belong on city buses?
Susan De Vos: 'They don't have to do it.'
Susan De Vos: 'They don't have to do it.'

Kevin Hinckley stood on Capitol Square last week, collecting signatures. The east-side Madison resident has started a petition asking the city to stop accepting alcohol and gambling advertising on Metro buses.

"I think it's inappropriate," says Hinckley. "It's as bad as promoting cigarettes."

Hinckley later delivered 300 signatures to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. He notes that many students ride Metro buses, which often carry ads for beer and other alcohol. "This is not the message I want to give to my 15-year-old," he says.

Madison Metro says it has no choice but to accept the ads.

"There are certain free-speech protections," says Julie Maryott-Walsh, Metro's spokeswoman. The city can deny ads that are obscene, libelous or fraudulent. And Metro is allowed to refuse tobacco ads, under the settlement tobacco companies made with state government. But if Metro rejects other advertisers without a valid reason, "they could sue us."

Susan De Vos, head of Madison Area Bus Advocates, a citizens group, asked the city's Transit and Parking Commission to discuss the issue at its meeting last month, after she noticed a bus fully wrapped with a Miller Genuine Draft ad.

"A lot of people don't like the full-wrap ads, particularly when they are advertising gambling or booze," she says. "I'd like Metro to have some good judgment. These ads are not in good taste."

Maryott-Walsh says Metro has always had ads for alcohol and casinos on its buses: "This isn't anything new. Now that the city has full wraps, these ads have become more noticeable."

De Vos says Metro can solve the free-speech issue by simply not accepting any advertising at all.

"They don't have to do it," she says, noting that the wraps are part of a yearlong trial and could end. "They're not subjecting fire trucks or police cars to this."

And De Vos is frustrated that mass transit is not funded at the same level as road building, forcing the city to rely on advertising to pad Metro's budget. "It really irritates me that the state can spend millions widening a road, but Madison has to wrap buses."

Hinckley says it should be a "no-brainer" for Metro to reject ads from DeJope. He finds the casino's current ad campaign offensive.

"We don't need 'a little bit of Vegas' in Madison," he says. "This is where we raise children, not a place where we gamble."

Should the CDA run Allied?

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz doesn't want private developers to bid on redeveloping the nine apartment buildings the city bought on Allied Drive last year. Instead, he's asking the Madison Common Council to pass a resolution making the Community Development Authority the project's developer.

"They have a very solid plan on a way to provide low-income housing," says Cieslewicz. "And the CDA does have experience in this."

Unlike a private developer, the CDA would not seek tax incremental financing for the project; instead, it would apply for federal tax credits. Cieslewicz says it's unlikely a private developer could respond to a request for bids in time to meet the February deadline for tax credits.

"The CDA holds the best chance of being able to get the tax credits," says Cieslewicz.

But Ald. Brenda Konkel has raised a number of concerns about the CDA's proposed role, including an apparent "conflict of interest" for Mark Olinger, who is the director of both the city's planning department and the CDA. The city will have to negotiate with the CDA on several issues, including whether to sell the land to the CDA or simply donate it.

"How does Mark negotiate with himself?" asks Konkel. She's also not sure the city should just hand over the property, for which it paid $4.3 million.

"We should find out what other people are willing to pay for it," she says, adding that a couple of developers have expressed interest. "They may have some really great new ideas that we haven't thought of. The CDA is not the only option."

Cieslewicz says the CDA could still work with other developers: "That could be part of the redevelopment."

Details of the project - like how many units will be offered at rates affordable to families with very low incomes - have not been worked out. Konkel fears the CDA will offer fewer housing units at affordable prices. "We're just basically giving our authority to the CDA to do what it wants, and that may not be what the neighborhood wants," she says.

CDA chair Stuart Levitan says the "first priority" is to the buildings' current tenants. But he admits it might not be possible to build new units that will be cheap enough. "This is where we go from wishes and dreams to reality."

Help (not) wanted

Dane County's Community Development Block Grant has only three staffers to administer roughly $1 million in federal housing and community development programs. And two of the positions are currently vacant.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development worries that even three positions are not enough. In a letter last month to Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, HUD officials wrote that the county's housing programs "have complex requirements that need competent daily hands-on attention.... [T]he county should consider additional staffing in order to ensure fully operational and regulatory-compliant programs."

But Topf Wells, Falk's chief of staff, says he's not sure HUD understands how Dane County operates. Some of CDBG's work is done by employees in other county departments. "A lot of the accounting functions are not performed by CDBG staff," he says. "I'm not sure HUD is aware of that."

Wells says Falk will consider adding more staff, but only if it doesn't cut into what the programs now provide to county residents: "The less you spend on administration, the more you can say yes to those requests for help."

Extended leave

Supv. Carousel Andrea Bayrd plans to introduce a proposal to extend Dane County's unpaid family leave for employees from 12 weeks to six months.

"Twelve weeks just isn't long enough," says Bayrd, adding that a 12-week-old baby still needs constant attention from its parents. "A six-month-old baby is completely different than a 12-week-old."

Bayrd, who has an 18-month-old daughter, calls extending the unpaid leave to six months a "substantial small step." What she'd really like to do is have the county offer employees paid leave. "A lot of people can't even take the 12 weeks because they're not being paid."

She doesn't know what this would cost the county, but has asked staff to look into it: "I'm trying to find a number everyone is comfortable with." Right now, there's little support for the idea, she says. "We save money because it's unpaid leave."

Time to go?

No one is leaving Mayor Cieslewicz's office - yet. Rumors that mayoral aide Mario Mendoza is taking a job in Montreal or that Janet Piraino wanted to be the new head of Human Resources are false. But Piraino, Cieslewicz's chief of staff, admits some mayoral aides are considering leaving.

"There's interest among the staff in looking at other opportunities," she says. "There have been no offers yet, and nothing's been decided. Nobody is leaving as of now."

Piraino won't disclose who wants to move on, but says, "It might be more than one."

It will not, however, be Piraino herself. "I love this job, I love the chaos," she says. "I'm very happy where I am."

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