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Madison Finance Committee rejects budget amendment to maintain police staffing
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Madison Finance Committee rejects budget amendment to maintain police staffing

Madison erupts

Madison police officers stand guard on West Gorham Street as firefighters extinguish dumpster fires in August. The Madison Finance Committee on Monday rejected an amendment to maintain police staffing at current levels. 

The Madison Finance Committee on Monday recommended the 2021 operating budget with some changes to address homelessness and violence, but rejected a controversial amendment that would have added police officers back into the budget. 

Introduced Oct. 6, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s proposed $349.1 million operating budget reduces the number of sworn, full-time officer positions from 483 to 479. That staffing reduction remains for now, but City Council members can still propose budget amendments to increase, maintain or reduce police staffing. 

Rhodes-Conway’s budget calls for limited spending increases, service reductions, some layoffs and furloughs, and unprecedented use of the city’s “rainy day” fund because of the fiscal challenges prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During a marathon meeting that stretched from Monday to the early-morning hours Tuesday, the Finance Committee answered the call to keep costs low and approved 20 amendments that reduce spending from what the mayor had proposed by $76,207. Seven other proposed amendments were rejected or delayed. 

The amended budget was approved unanimously. If the $349 million spending package is approved by the City Council, property taxes would increase by $37, or 1.4%, from 2020 rates to a total of $2,722 on the average-value home, now worth $315,200.

One of the cuts decreases the salaries of City Council members by 3.25% in 2021, which effectively cancels the raise the council was scheduled to receive. A 5% cut was initially proposed. 

Major amendments

On a 5-1 vote, committee members approved an amendment to increase funding from $350,000 to $600,000 for a new pilot program that would send paramedics and mental health workers to some calls historically handled by police. The increase for the Crisis Response Team would be paid for by reducing the Police Department’s recruit class from 39 to 33 or 34.

Interim Police Chief Vic Wahl said the funding cut for the recruit class would likely result in vacant positions on the police force that they are unable to fill and potential overtime. But Ald. Rebecca Kemble, 18th District, said the hope is for the pilot program to reduce demand on the police by taking some emergency calls off their shoulders. 

Another approved amendment increases funding from $200,000 to $300,000 for a four-year-old city initiative known as the Focused Interruption Coalition that responds to incidents of violence in the city and seeks to use peer support to head off retaliation.

Money for the increase will come from funds already allocated for a program in the current year’s budget that provides low-income people with $40 gift cards to offset the cost of the $40 vehicle fee the council approved last year. According to the city’s Finance Department, only 43 of the cards have been distributed.

The city has seen a record increase in shootings this year and 10 homicides, after seeing four last year and five in 2018.

The Finance Committee also added $50,000 to expand street outreach to help contact homeless individuals and direct them toward support services, such as housing, medical care and mental health care. Delayed was an amendment that would have put an additional $183,000 toward the outreach and helping low-income residents pay for security deposits and rent. 

Police debate

Under the rejected amendment to maintain police staffing, the Police Department would have used $230,528 in federal grant money and $117,052 in city money next year to add four police officer positions and reclassify one officer as a sergeant — bringing back the four officers the mayor had cut. The grant funding would have decreased over three years, leaving the city to cover the full cost of the officers beginning in 2024.

The amendment failed on a 2-4 vote, with only Alds. Sheri Carter and Barbara Harrington-McKinney in support. 

Most of the Madison residents who spoke during public comment used their time to testify against the amendment. Around 20 people spoke against funding for police, and only two spoke in support.

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Local protesters this summer have repeatedly demanded that Madison shift funding from police to social services, arguing that cities need to rethink public safety in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody and other recent examples of police brutality. 

Benny Ramirez told committee members that cutting police funding would be a decision to “be on the right side of history.” Others said officers do not make communities safer.

Madison resident Mike Thomsen, however, said he and other residents “no longer feel safe on the streets or in our homes.” He wanted the city to maintain police staffing.

But Madison resident Rachel Chisman urged committee members to cut funding.

“There are progressive cities all over the United States that are defunding their police departments right now,” Chrisman said. “I just don’t understand why we’re not.”

In other amendment deliberations, the committee:

  • Rejected increasing the annual cost of a residential parking permit from $42 to $105 beginning Sept. 1. Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, said it was "inappropriate timing" to more than double the rate for a parking permit when many are struggling financially during the pandemic.
  • Rejected hiring an additional park ranger. 
  • Restored one day with evening hours at the city’s three refuse drop-off sites during the summer, at a cost of $8,000. 
  • Restored funding for parking cashiers to prevent layoffs. 

Homeless shelter 

Also Monday, the Finance Committee unanimously recommended approval of a resolution that moves forward with the development of a new men’s emergency homeless shelter, despite a tentative deal to buy a site for the shelter falling through last week.

The city’s director of Community Development Jim O’Keefe said Madison is days away from deciding between two alternative sites.

If approved by the City Council, the resolution would authorize the city’s Engineering Division to issue a request for proposals to hire an architectural firm to make plans for renovating, converting or constructing a men’s homeless shelter, depending on the nature of the property that is purchased. The resolution does not include funding, but “anticipates” that the city will include $3 million in its 2021 capital budget for the project.

Matt Wachter, the city’s director of Planning, Community and Economic Development Department, said the goal is to find a property with an existing building that can be quickly repurposed into a shelter for this winter, but also has “room to grow.” Wachter said the hope is to use the property to create housing, an expanded shelter or other services for the homeless community in future phases.

Other action

The Finance Committee also unanimously recommended extending a deal with the Madison Mallards for them to use the Warner Park Stadium through 2028, but without paying the city rent in 2020 and paying rent tied to ticket sales in 2021. 

Alex Saloutos, who spoke against the measure, called it a "sweetheart deal" for the Mallards. He said the Mallards should have to pay to use the stadium. 

But Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp said for years the city has not put money toward capital improvements for the stadium, even simple projects such as fixing the bathrooms and locker rooms. Knepp said the Mallards have made significant investments in the stadium — $5 million over the last 10 years — making it a more valuable asset for the city. 

Photos: Madison erupts in wake of Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake

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