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Madison mayor's $349.1 million budget calls for service reductions, taps city's 'rainy day' fund
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Madison mayor's $349.1 million budget calls for service reductions, taps city's 'rainy day' fund

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With austerity forced by economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway on Tuesday unveiled a $349.1 million operating budget for 2021 that calls for limited spending increases, service reductions, some layoffs and furloughs and unprecedented use of the city’s “rainy day” fund.

The budget adds just $37.46 in city taxes to the average homeowner’s bill.

“This has been an unprecedented and challenging year,” Rhodes-Conway said in introducing the spending plan. “Today, we continue to face levels of uncertainty that seem never ending, impacting the health and well-being of our residents, and increasing demand for the services the city and other levels of government provide.”

The budget, which seeks reductions from many agencies, includes no sweeping “defunding” of the police as Black Lives Matter protesters have demanded. But it does provide $350,000 for a pilot crisis response team in the Fire Department to relieve police of some responsibilities and provides $450,769 for a new Office of the Independent Monitor, recently created by the City Council to add an additional layer of oversight over the Police Department.

It also joins Dane County in helping fund a Violence Prevention Unit in Public Health Madison and Dane County and establishes a $400,000 COVID-19 relief fund that would use a nonprofit to help underserved populations.

Since the pandemic struck, the city has suffered significant drops in hotel room tax revenue, parking violation fines, interest from investments and other revenues. Initially, the city envisioned a staggering $25 million budget shortfall for 2021, but that figure was later revised to $16.5 million.

Rhodes-Conway closed the remaining shortfall by using $8 million — the most in recent memory — from the city’s fund balance, known as its “rainy day” fund, which stood at $54 million at the end of 2019; $3.5 million in spending reductions; $1.5 million in hoped-for reductions in police and firefighter labor contracts; $1.2 million in savings through furloughs; $1.1 million from increased ambulance fees and revenue from the town of Madison; and $1 million from delaying some services to the town.

“We’ve never had revenue fall this fast in real time,” budget and program evaluation manager Laura Larsen said. “We’ve never used the fund balance to this extent in recent history.”

Cautioning that 2021 could be “the beginning of what will be multiple years of uncertainty,” the mayor also called for putting limits on how much of the fund is used in future budgets.

The city, which had 2,949 full-time equivalent employees, will trim the equivalent of six positions, while non-represented employees will be required to take two to four unpaid days off, with lower-paid employees taking less time off than higher-paid ones, Rhodes-Conway said.

Overall, the budget increases spending 2.46% to $349.1 million; raises tax collections by 2.2% to $255.5 million, the lowest percentage in at least 15 years; and raises city taxes on the average home, now valued at $315,200, by 1.39%, or $37.46, to $2,723.20.

City Council President Sheri Carter could not immediately be reached.

Health and safety

As the mayor fashioned her proposal, the city has been gripped by the economic fallout from the pandemic, frequent protests against police brutality that have at times turned destructive and a deadly and continuing rash of gun violence.

Rhodes-Conway’s budget increases Police Department spending by 3.2% to $88.4 million, including funds for an academy to fill vacant positions. But the budget also anticipates $1 million in savings either through a renegotiation of the police union contract or eliminating positions as they become vacant. The department’s budget accounts for lost revenue from the recent elimination of the School Resource Officer program and transfers the school crossing guard program to the Traffic Engineering Division.

Due to rising benefit costs, the mayor actually allocated about $400,000 more than the department called for in its $88 million budget request.

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The budget also provides $450,769 for the Office of the Independent Monitor, including $371,169 for the office’s three positions, $29,600 for a police Civilian Review Board, and $50,000 for legal services to residents wishing to bring cases to the board.

Police spokesman Joel DeSpain offered a measured response to the budget, saying only that Acting Police Chief Vic Wahl would review it with command staff with a focus on “finding the best path forward to balance tight budget constraints with the needs of the department and community.”

The Fire Department, which would also see a spending increase, would receive $350,000 for the half-time, pilot crisis response team, which would respond to crisis calls and behavior health emergencies in a non-ambulance type of vehicle. The concept is to shift some of the response on certain types of calls away from the police. The mayor is also asking the firefighter’s union to renegotiate its contract.

The mayor said the police union has not responded to requests about negotiations but that firefighters have begun conversations.

“The majority of the savings I’ve identified in the budget ($1.5 million from police and firefighters) can be realized if these employees agree to take the same health insurance package as all other city employees,” she said.

As a summer of shootings continues into the fall, Rhodes-Conway and County Executive Joe Parisi are proposing to spend a combined $250,000 in 2021 on a new Violence Prevention Unit that seeks to take a public health approach to stopping the violence. The unit will also oversee a “community safety worker” pilot program, based on an initiative on the Southwest Side, in which the city will hire people in select neighborhoods to help resolve conflicts without involving law enforcement. The city will provide an additional $75,000 for any such outside services next year.

In addition to the Violence Prevention Unit, Public Health will get $929,000 from the city and county to fully fund nine positions authorized midyear with federal coronavirus relief funding to address the pandemic.

The budget makes no cuts to the city’s Community Development Division, which funds community organizations and social services and funds a new Racial Equity and Social Justice Division in the Department of Civil Rights, the mayor said.

Other trims

The mayor’s budget funds Metro Transit service levels at 85% of pre-COVID levels, and requires reductions in the Parks Division, including reduced funds for lifeguards and reduced maintenance to the State Street Mall concourse.

“These reductions are difficult and will force us to make adjustments in the way city services are provided,” Rhodes-Conway said, adding that half of the savings come from efficiencies and the other half from service reductions. “These reductions have largely, though not completely, avoided layoffs for city staff who work very hard every day to deliver exceptional services in the midst of a pandemic.”

The budget would eliminate library fines in accord with the Library Board’s direction, bringing a revenue loss of $226,300, and it would close youth services at the Central Library three hours earlier daily; reduce hours at the Ashman branch, operate the Monroe branch three rather than six days a week, and move Sunday hours from the Pinney and Sequoya branches to other branches.

The City Council could still increase tax collections by $527,722, or an additional $5.53 on the average home, before hitting state-mandated levy limits, Larsen said.

Rhodes-Conway’s proposed budget will be considered by the city’s Finance Committee later this month, with final council decisions on the capital and operating budgets in the week of Nov. 10.

Photos: Mayor, City Council members are sworn in

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