When asked what he sees as the main goals and challenges for the city of Madison in 2010, the first thing on Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's list is "crime." It's an acknowledgment, perhaps, that this is an area where he's vulnerable, politically.
Cieslewicz is quick to note that crime has declined in Madison by about 10% in the past two years. But he knows that statistic doesn't comfort anyone who has been a crime victim or lives in a neighborhood where crime is perceived to be high.
"We've got to find a way to balance all the good news we have on crime with the real concerns people have," says Cieslewicz, the recipient of blowback from citizens who feel every civic initiative that doesn't concern crime is somehow responsible for it.
The mayor isn't sure if further reductions in the crime rate are achievable: "I don't know if we can match [the recent decline]. But we certainly don't want to see it go up." His focus instead is on addressing particular problem areas.
For instance, Cieslewicz says, the city has shifted four court officers to the Madison Police Department's anti-gang unit, for a total of six. And it's continuing to build up Meadowood, on the south side, especially through its neighborhood center: "We need to continue to be vigilant and work with the neighborhood."
Besides crime, the mayor will be working to advance projects already in motion. This includes building support for a referendum on regional transit next fall; breaking ground on the new Central Library; winning federal support for high-speed rail; improving relationships with the business community; and pursuing green initiatives, like making the city more bike-friendly and energy-efficient.
And Cieslewicz thinks 2010 will bring further relief from the recession: "I'm hopeful we'll see room-tax revenue, city investment and building-permit revenue start to creep up again."
Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway has a slightly different take on what the city needs to prioritize. "I think we need to pay some pretty strong attention to economic development," she says. "I don't mean attracting large companies. I mean helping support and grow the businesses we have."
Rhodes-Conway also wants to review some basic economic development mechanisms, like tax increment financing.
"We have really good procedures for when people ask for money to build a building, whether that's housing or mixed use. We know how to evaluate that," she says. "Yet we changed our policy to say we don't really want you to build condos downtown anymore, we want you to create jobs. We don't have any way of evaluating that. We need to wrestle with that as policymakers.... We have to figure out what are the standards and consequences if the job growth isn't created."
Rhodes-Conway sees a bit of a double standard with how city projects are evaluated. Downtown projects tend to get a lot of attention, while "projects on the periphery seem to get a lot less scrutiny." That approach leads to sprawl, as developers gravitate toward the path of least resistance.
"I don't mean we need to give anyone who wants to build downtown a free pass," she says. "But how do we have a discussion about downtown development without making it really hard to do?"
Rhodes-Conway would also like to find ways for the city to help people in these tough economic times. "We can see already that folks are under some serious pressures, and more than ever we need to pay attention to our community services."
County sets sights on jobs
For the new year, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk has a new focus: job growth. It's a function federal and state governments usually take the lead on, she says, "but we haven't seen a depression like this before."
Falk has already begun redirecting staff to the issue of job creation. She doesn't offer details on what to expect: "We're starting to chew on some ideas but nothing ready for primetime yet."
In the meantime, Falk is continuing to build initiatives to fight alcohol abuse. These include putting more sheriff's deputies on the roads on weekends to target drunk driving; continuing the Pathfinders program, which offers a treatment alternative to jail time for those convicted of alcohol-related offenses; and working with the Dane County Coalition to Reduce Alcohol Abuse, to address the challenges of alcohol overconsumption.
There's also a pilot program in middle schools to educate kids about the dangers of drinking. Falk says, "One in five middle school students say they drink alcohol, which is stunning."
The groundwork is also being laid, so to speak, for the county's manure digester, which aims to protect the lakes from pollution while producing energy. And already, the county is looking into the possibility of a food-waste digester, which like the manure digester could create both jobs and energy.
Falk thinks next year's county budget will be challenging, because "county governments were hit harder than other units of government by the recession." Sales tax revenues, one of the county's main revenues sources, are down 11%, or $5 million.
An upturn in the economy would ease a lot of pain. "I built next year's budget based on there not being a better economy," Falk says. "But I'm optimistic."
School motto: Be prepared
The Madison Metropolitan School District recently revised its strategic plan. It calls on the schools to "prepare every student for kindergarten, raise the bar for all students, create meaningful student-adult relationships, and provide student-centered programs and supports that lead to prepared graduates."
Superintendent Dan Nerad translates: "We need to improve learning for all students, while we work to eliminate achievement gaps for some students." Part of this goal involves continued training for teachers and an effort to recruit good teachers.
Enrollment in the district has been flat, Nerad says, but it's expected to begin growing at the elementary level and trickle upward through the school system as students age. In the first half of 2010, the district will evaluate its infrastructure needs to determine how to deal with the enrollment hike.
Nerad also hopes to launch a four-year-old kindergarten class, possibly as early as next school year. This has been a source of contention in the past, as Madison lagged behind other districts in offering this option.
As with every government agency, the school district is concerned about money. Nerad says state revenue dropped 15% during this school year, and it's expected to drop another 15% in 2010-11. He's not sure how the district can weather this downturn.
"We were able to get through this year by refinancing the district's debt," he says. "But those things were onetime fixes. Obviously if we have some creative ideas, we need to apply them."