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Ald. Denise DeMarb during a City Council meeting at the City County Building, in Madison, on Tuesday, November 18, 2014. photo by Michelle Stocker

For months, Madison’s finance committee has been delving into its capital budget in an attempt to rein in spending in coming years and keep property taxes from jumping by more than $100 on the average home in a single year.

Wednesday evening, that body, the Board of Estimates, made some initial decisions about which projects to remove or delay, laying out a possible plan that would help the city’s financial situation, but wouldn’t solve it.

If left as is, property taxes on the average value home would increase more than $160 in 2016, approaching a 9 percent increase, according to city Finance director Dave Schmiedicke. That’s a significant jump from the average increase of 4.62 percent over the past 15 years.

With the changes discussed Wednesday, the tax increase on the average value home would pare back to just under $100 for 2016 and closer to $110 or $120 for the two subsequent years, but council members aim to get it lower than that.

During the four-hour meeting, board members struggled to cut or delay major projects, arguing the importance of finally renovating the Madison Municipal Building or emphasizing safety needs in regard to police and fire department requests.

Board members ultimately decided they should move a planned property and evidence complex for police and a biodigester out of the five-year capital improvement plan, slotting both for an undetermined future date. They also agreed to move public market funding to 2020 and Midtown Police Station to 2016-2017, in both cases years that correspond more accurately with when the projects will actually be constructed. They meanwhile delayed decisions on Monroe Street construction and a new fire station, holding off on recommendations until they can draw more information from the engineering and fire departments.

No binding decisions were made Wednesday evening, but the board plans to use these priorities to guide its decisions moving forward into budget planning for 2016. These are some of the main projects discussed:

Madison Municipal Building renovation – $30 million

Built in 1929, the aging Madison Municipal Building has significant problems with most of its systems, including electrical, heating and cooling. The governmental building houses seven different city departments or divisions and about 180 employees, while the City-County Building house 14 city departments and more than 500 employees.

Coming in at $30 million, renovation of the Madison Municipal Building is the most expensive project board members were considering.

Ald. Marsha Rummel said she’s seen renovation of the building pushed off year after year, particularly during a time when the city was considering selling it or having it converted into a hotel. Now that the council has decided to keep it for city use, board members agreed it’s time to renovate it, leaving it as planned for the bulk of the work in 2016 and 2017.

“I really feel like we owe it to this building … to reinvest in it,” Rummel said.

Public Market – $8.6 million

The city’s public market endeavor has drawn significant public interest and input in recent months, with a business plan being drafted in April.

The market district is planned for the block bounded by East Johnson Street, East Washington Avenue, North First Street and the Yahara River, with the market itself going into the city's fleet services building. Fleet services isn’t slated to relocate out of that building until 2020, so construction on the public market couldn’t begin until then, but $8.6 million in funding was originally in the capital improvement plan for 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Board members agreed that they should move that funding to the more realistic year of 2020, keeping it in the capital improvement plan so it does not lose momentum but scheduling it when it might actually occur.

“I think it would be a push for us, no matter how you looked at it, for us to get the fundraising for a build even in 2017,” said Planning, Community and Economic Development Director Natalie Erdman.

She said the next few years will involve fundraising outlined in the business plan and continued activity around the market district to keep momentum.

“I just want to make sure that momentum that’s been started continues on,” said Ald. Barbara McKinney.

Pinney Library – $9 million

Board members decided to keep funding for the relocation of east side’s Pinney Library in the budget as planned for 2016. In a trade-off, they plan to move placeholder funding for Hawthorne and Grandview Commons libraries out of the five-year capital improvement plan.

Library Director Gregory Mickells said they’re already proceeding with design work for the project and have reached agreements with teh developer.

“We would really appreciate having the project completed in 2017,” he said.

Midtown Police Station – $10 million

As Madison’s west side has grown in population, police have been pushing for an additional district and station in that area. Called the Midtown Police Station, it is planned for 2015 and 2016, a move that Mayor Paul Soglin disagreed with in last year’s budgeting session.

Board members Wednesday evening debated whether to move it back two years, to the mayor’s originally scheduled plan, but they ultimately only decided to shift it by about one year, to a more realistic timing for completion of the project as already planned.

Board members emphasized the importance of safety, and Council President Denise DeMarb said police is one of the things residents rely on the city to provide.

“Other things that we spend money are really great, like a public market,” DeMarb said. “But I also believe we need streets plowed, garbage picked up, good water quality.”

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“As much as I know this is going to be highly debated in council, I cannot support moving, from what I’ve heard tonight, moving the police department out,” she said.

Biodigester – $17.8 million

With little discussion, board members decided to move the biodigester project out of the capital improvement plan, beyond the five years laid out in that plan. It had already been delayed to 2017 in this year’s budget, and council members decided they should push it out past five years to an indefinite time.

Board members emphasized they are still focused on sustainability, but Ald. Sara Eskrich floated that there may be other ways to achieve sustainability without as significant of a city investment.

“(We’re) in no way implying that we’re moving it out and not supporting other sustainable methods,” she said.

Police Property and Evidence complex – $15.7 million

The need for a new police property and evidence complex has arisen out of concerns that a currently leased location will be sold, but board members determined Wednesday that concern is not imminent enough to keep this project in the budget for 2018. They decided they should move it beyond that and out of the five-year capital improvement plan.

Overall, board members appreciated the opportunity to delve into the capital budget prior to the intense budgeting process that starts for council in September.

Long-time Ald. Mike Verveer said he came into the process with great skepticism, but he quickly realized it was a tremendous help both to new alders and veterans like himself, calling it a good “deep dive” exercise and educational background for all of us.

“Just for all six of us alder members of the board, I think that this has been very beneficial,” Verveer said.

DeMarb, who brought the discussions together, said there is a bigger discussion that needs to happen that this is part of about whether to set a policy limit on borrowing or other key issues. She said she is looking forward to priority-based budgeting, using that moving forward to produce better results.

“At some point, it becomes unaffordable to live and own in the city of Madison, not just the property values but the taxes,” DeMarb said.

In the coming months, Mayor Paul Soglin will craft a capital budget and an operating budget. After that, the Board of Estimates will review and amend those budgets, followed by the entire council, with budget completion in November.

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