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Government and businesses can do more to make it easier for people to ride the bus, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said Wednesday.

Madison's City Council will decide this week whether to approve Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway's 2020 budget.

It should.

Yes, it contains some controversial features, but in the end the final proposal as approved by the city's Finance Committee is a budget that can position Madison for the future.

The heart of the controversy is a $40 registration fee — called a "wheel tax" by some — that would raise $7.9 million, part of which would jump-start a proposed bus rapid transit system that many consider essential to deal with a growth rate that is adding 3,000 more residents to the city every year.

It's a regressive tax, to be sure. The mayor admits that, but the Wisconsin Legislature has left Wisconsin municipalities no other choice. It's either swallow the bitter taste of that tax, or cut crucial city services and personnel costs at a time when Madison needs to position its transportation system for the future and deal with the shortage of affordable housing.

The mayor has rightfully pointed out that fast, reliable public transportation is important for a new generation of young workers who are flowing into the city for jobs with fast-growing high-tech companies or who, if they work outside the city, want to live in it. Getting cars off the streets can benefit everyone just in terms of traffic congestion, air quality and the impact on the climate.

Not surprisingly, some are claiming that the mayor's focus on transportation is shortchanging the Madison Police Department. It's a false claim.

Yes, the mayor hasn't included more police officers in the budget, but the budget does include $5 million more for the department, part for pay increases and part to pick up the cost of four officers who have been paid by grants that are now expiring.

Further, the money that is being earmarked for bus rapid transit is in the capital budget, which is primarily funded by city borrowing through bonds. That money can't be simply moved to the operating budget, which is financed mainly through the property tax.

Rhodes-Conway has made it clear that she is not opposed to increasing the number of police officers in the future. But, she insists that Madison is not an unsafe city, and it's doubly important in this budget to begin work on the transportation system to put Madison in line for a multi-million-dollar federal grant for a rapid transit system.

That's a reasonable trade-off for one year.

What could also be a trade-off, though, is a $200,000 budget line for an independent police auditor to monitor police polices and actions. The position was a major recommendation in a major study of the department, but that could also be delayed in what is obviously an already tight budget. 

Some Council members will try to switch that money to add regular police officers instead. That's a reasonable compromise.

Overall, though, the mayor's first budget is a good one. It's not looking back, but will position Madison for its future.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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