Satya Rhodes-Conway, Policy in a Pub

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway discusses the city's 2020 spending plans with Wisconsin Policy Forum Research Director Jason Stein Monday at the Rigby Pub in downtown Madison during the independent, nonpartisan research group's Policy in a Pub event. 

With Madison facing an $11 million budget gap, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway knew developing spending plans for 2020 would be difficult.

But as she told the audience at a Wisconsin Policy Forum event Monday night, it has been more challenging than she originally thought.

“It turns out there’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes that the City Council doesn’t necessarily see, and the general public doesn’t necessarily see,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I thought that I knew what I was in for, but I don’t think I really did.”

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum's "Policy in a Pub” drew several dozen people to the Rigby Pub in downtown Madison for the city budget conversation between Rhodes-Conway and the forum’s Research Director Jason Stein.

This fall, Rhodes-Conway offered a 2020 capital budget proposal that included $170.6 million in new spending and a $340.4 million operating budget proposal. After the Finance Committee adopted amendments, the capital budget is at $172 million and the operating budget totals $340.7 million in spending.

Madison’s City Council will offer amendments and begin budget deliberations during the week of Nov. 11.

Rhodes-Conway said she does not expect future budgets to be any easier.

“This year I hope was an aberration,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I think (Finance Director Dave Schmiedicke) will tell me that is a false hope and that we will have to be prepared in future years to deal with a similar budget gap.”

Public safety, particularly adding to the size of Madison’s police force, is a focal point of budget debates.

Public safety and health make up the largest share of the city’s general fund budget. The Madison Police Department has a nearly $85 million budget, and the Madison Fire Department’s budget totals $58.8 million, according to the executive operating budget proposal.

The largest share of expenditures for public safety and health services is allocated for personnel. Rhodes-Conway said she inherited wage contracts for the police and fire departments negotiated during the previous administration.

While noting her support of organized labor and the right to bargain, Rhodes-Conway said she is not sure she would have negotiated the same deal.

“Certainly going forward, I think we’re going to have to look very carefully at future negotiations but also possibly at reopening our current contracts,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Rhodes-Conway’s budget proposal did not add more officers. Alders have proposed amendments that would add three, six or 12 officers.

The mayor said that she was not prepared to set a directive on staffing levels. She emphasized taking a long-term view of staffing across a variety of city agencies, including police and fire, now that the city has negotiated boundary agreements with almost all neighboring areas.

“The fact that there are no additional bodies in this budget doesn’t mean there will never be bodies in my budget,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Vehicle registration fee

Rhodes-Conway expressed frustration at state-mandated restrictions that limit the ways municipalities can raise revenue. Apart from property taxes and fees that are used for specific programs, Rhodes-Conway said her proposal to enact a $40 vehicle registration fee was her last option.

If she had the choice, Rhodes-Conway said she would rather enact a city income tax, which is preempted by the state, instead of a vehicle registration fee.

The proposed vehicle registration fee would generate $7.9 million in revenue and would fund five new positions and three studies related to bus rapid transit. It would also help expand route service and provide bus passes for low-income riders.

Rhodes-Conway said she felt the budget would have “to go big once” with the $40 fee to avoid returning to yearly increases.

“When I decided to get there, it was based on mostly not having other options but also on my feeling that it was patently unfair to ask people to pay that fee and not get anything new,” Rhodes-Conway said. “It is unfair to just use that fee to fill a budget gap and to not be able to deliver any improvement in services.”

If adopted, Madison’s $40 vehicle registration fee would be the highest in the state.

Madison’s City Council is set to vote Tuesday in a special session on an ordinance to create the fee. The meeting is at 4:30 p.m. in room 201 of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

The mayor is “cautiously optimistic” the ordinance will pass.

Alders who have spoken against the fee dislike that the fee is regressive, meaning that it applies to all residents of Madison regardless of income. Rhodes-Conway underscored how the fee would deliver new services like additional bus passes to low-income households and eligible middle-school and high-school students.

“The vehicle registration fee is not a first choice. It’s not even a tenth choice in my book,” Rhodes-Conway said. “It is literally the only choice.”

In 2018 when former mayor Paul Soglin floated a $17 vehicle registration fee, the city analyzed the proposal for social justice and racial equity concerns. The analysis found that the fee would potentially affect low-income communities, including communities of color, disproportionately.

“A $17 fee on its own would likely not serve as the primary barrier for those who can already afford a vehicle,” according to the analysis. “The issue exists as a significant burden for those low income individuals who are newly exploring car ownership and need to budget for the expense.”

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