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Finance Committee

City staff needed to open an additional room at the Madison Finance Committee meeting Monday because of the many residents who signed up to comment on the 2020 operating budget.

After a more-than-eight-hour meeting Monday, the Madison Finance Committee recommended the 2020 operating budget with a $40 vehicle registration fee, several amendments and no new police officers or firefighters.

Committee members approved 13 of 25 amendments to Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s original $340.4 million operating budget, but rejected all of the proposed cuts, leaving little wiggle room in an already tight budget.

One of the cuts that drew the most heated controversy was eliminating $200,000 for an independent police monitor, which some community members said was needed to hold police accountable. The position, recommended by a committee reviewing the police department, remains in the operating budget.

The amended budget, which the Finance Committee approved early Tuesday morning, increases spending to $340.7 million by raising property taxes. If it is approved by the City Council, property taxes would increase by $91, or 3.5%, from 2019 rates to a total of $2,678 on the average-value home, now worth $300,967.

Throughout the meeting, committee members felt forced to reject proposals they otherwise would have supported because of state levy limits that restrict how much cities can raise property taxes.

“I want to support this tonight, but I can’t with the levy limits,” Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, said at one point.

Additional public safety proposals rejected

Rejected amendments included $168,000 to add three police officers and $637,000 for 10 firefighter-paramedics to staff an ambulance at Fire Station No. 14 on the Southeast Side. Committee members didn’t discuss pricier amendments to add six or 12 police officers.

Acting Police Chief Vic Wahl and Fire Chief Steven Davis told committee members that their departments needed more staffing to meet the needs of the community, particularly more police patrol officers and another ambulance.

By the end of the meeting, the Finance Committee had room to add the three police officers by increasing property taxes almost right up to the state’s limits, but voted it down 3-2, with one abstention.

Also rejected was $160,000 for Traffic Engineering to improve safety at high-risk intersections by adding signs, pavement markings and speed reductions.

Ald. Barbara Harrington McKinney, 1st District, said she was “ashamed” and “discouraged” that the committee didn’t have room in the budget for public safety measures.

McKinney had sponsored several cuts to the budget, but Ald. Rebecca Kemble, 18th District, said the cuts were “deaf to” the work she and other City Council members have been doing within communities.

Proposed cuts included eliminating life guards from five beaches, closing Goodman Pool a week early, reducing funding for an expansion of the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, reducing a proposed pay increase for city employees and eliminating two newly created positions for Madison Metro, the city’s bus service.

Despite a lack of funding for more officers, the budget still delivers $5 million more for the Police Department, a 6.5% increase, including money for four officers formerly covered by federal grants, pay and benefit increases, mental health training and wellness initiatives for officers.

"This is a department that is getting our support," Ald. Keith Furman, 19th District, said of Madison police.  

The Finance Committee added spending for: 

  • Creating two stormwater engineer positions within the Stormwater Utility. 
  • Programming to build digital literacy skills among Madison residents in need. 
  • Pavement marking focused on crosswalks in school zones and high traffic areas. 
  • Enhancing "inclusive community engagement efforts" for the Odana, Greater East Towne and South Madison areas. 
  • Increasing snow removal on bike paths. 

Wheel tax ‘not our first choice’

No amendments reduced or eliminated the $40 vehicle registration fee, also called a wheel tax, that is projected to bring in $7.9 million in revenue annually, and would be the highest such fee in the state of Wisconsin.

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Even committee members who voted in favor of the vehicle registration fee were not eager to pass it because the tax hits low-income residents harder than those who are better off.

“We don’t wish to do this,” Verveer said. “This wasn’t our first choice.”

The tax would help close a projected $11 million budget shortfall and extend bus service to the city’s South Side. It would also help jump-start programming for Bus Rapid Transit, a high-frequency, high-capacity, limited-stop service that Rhodes-Conway hopes to have in place by 2024 to reduce vehicle traffic.

If approved by the City Council, the fee would be in addition to Dane County’s wheel tax of $28, adopted in 2018, and a state wheel tax that increased $10 this year to $85, bringing the total annual vehicle registration cost for city residents to $153. The city fee would take effect in early 2020.

An amendment proposed by Ald. Shiva Bidar, which was approved by the finance committee on a near-unanimous voice vote, would help “ease the burden” of the wheel tax on some low-income residents.

Bidar’s proposal would use $100,000 in funding for Madison Metro, the city’s bus service, to provide 2,500 $40 gift cards to recipients of federal Women, Infant and Children assistance to offset the $40 wheel tax.

Ald. Verveer proposed an amendment to have the wheel tax only last until the end of 2021, but committee members voted it down because they did not want to give Madison residents false hope.

Rhodes-Conway said saying the wheel tax would be temporary would send “a message that we are willing to lie to our constituents in order to make them feel better.”

“We are not going to be able to get rid of a vehicle registration fee in two years because our costs are going to continue to go up,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Madison has to notify the Wisconsin Department of Transportation at least 90 days before the month that the wheel tax would take effect. The City Council would have to hold a special session to pass the wheel tax by the end of October or lose out on about $550,000 in estimated revenue in February.

Police funding draws controversy

About 20 community members spoke Monday on amendments impacting the police department, most against adding more police officers and cutting funding for an independent police monitor, while some were in support.

An outside monitor is among 177 recommendations released Friday by the Madison Police Department Policy and Procedure Ad Hoc Committee after four years of review.

Daniel Milsted, who spoke against the police auditor position, said the city would essentially be funding a "full time police critic."

Milsted, who said he owns a business in the 100 block of State Street with his wife, called for adding more police officers to address crime, including at the top of State Street.

Matthew Braunginn, a member of the Ad Hoc Committee, said many of the committee's recommendations are dependent on having an outside monitor. He urged the finance committee to keep it.

Many, including Zon Moua, opposed providing more funding to the police department, arguing that having more police would endanger people of color.

Moua, director of youth organizing for Freedom, Inc., said funding should be allocated to housing, free food, health care, educational programming and other community programs.

"Our vision of justice does not include the police and more funding to the police," Moua said.

Once the finance committee passes its version of the operating budget, the City Council will have a chance to amend it. The council is scheduled to take up the operating budget Nov. 12.

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.