I was sitting at the city's financial board meeting on Monday, jotting a few notes on my writing pad, when Mayor Dave Cieslewicz suddenly broke out into a vehement speech.
"I would not like to place this on file without prejudice. I'd like to place with on file with extreme prejudice. I think this is a very bad idea," he said.
The topic in question? What I had thought would be a relatively minor item related to the city-county squabble on moving to a quarterly, rather than biannual, property tax payment system. The change from two payments to four payments has the possibility of shifting about $200,000 in interest and penalties from delinquent payments to the city from the country, and this item would have restored that balance more or less.
But, the finance board opted to place the item on file (essentially killing it, although the council has to vote, as well) rather than return those funds to the county after Cieslewicz gave an impassioned speech that he called a "teachable moment on our relationship with the county."
Cieslewicz spoke for about five minutes about his frustrations with the county, which I assume have built up for awhile, "disinvesting" in things like community services and infrastructure. While the city has increased its community services funding by 46 percent in recent years, not including major capital projects like the Villager Mall, the county has only increased them 14 percent, he said. The county also does not contribute to Rhythm and Booms, which brings many people from outside Madison to Warner Park, or the Overture Center, despite having two county appointees on the Madison Cultural Arts District board.
Similarly, while the city is devoting $2.6 million to reconstruction University Avenue from Segoe Road to Shorewood Boulevard, the county is chipping in only $53,750 (federal stimulus funding makes up the bulk of the funding at about $4.37 million). While the astute observer might point out that the entire segment of University Avenue being reconstructed this year is in the city of Madison, the road is still considered a county highway (MS, specifically).
Cieslewicz only pointed out that example for road funding, but getting county funding on county highway projects in the city of Madison has been difficult for a long time, from what I can tell (according to city budgets, the county chipped in about $100,000 in the city's $20.7 million major street budget back in 2000, $389,000 out of $11.9 million in 2001 and $462,000 out of $27.6 million in 2002). So then, why the outburst now?
Cieslewicz painted it as the last straw, saying "I oppose this with every scintilla of my being because I've gotten to the point where I'm not taking it anymore."
Looking back to a story I wrote several months ago, the city has made a concerted effort to improve its infrastructure throughout the city, with serious implications on the city's borrowing. Cieslewicz has depicted it as a response to the recession -- taking the opportunity when construction prices are low to repair aging infrastructure. From what it appears, Dane County has not taken that same approach, going with smaller increases to maintain more of a status quo of spending. As the mayor puts together the 2011 budget, I can imagine it's become frustrating to watch city borrowing go up and city taxpayers more on the line for repaying that borrowing while those outside the county often benefit from that spending.
The issue is complicated, though -- I won't pretend to understand all the dynamics of a city-county relationship where one major city makes up almost half the county's population. But, I would hazard a guess that having a city like Madison as the county's center is generally an economic benefit to the rest of the county, and having a solid transportation system that connects all parts of the county well is something the Dane County government probably finds important, as well as having strong community services and a quality arts venue.
But, can the city force the county to spend more than it feels it is able to in these financial times? Probably not. Cieslewicz's speech might be a wake-up call to them, but it could just as easily put the county executive and board members on the defensive. We'll have to wait and see where the grenade he lobbed ends up.