Paul Soglin, council face fiscal constraints in next city budget

August 20, 2018

For outgoing Mayor Paul Soglin and the City Council, the looming challenge before the spring elections is to forge operating and capital budgets — often a stress point between them over the past eight years — for 2019.

Despite misgivings, Soglin last fall signed a $314.8 million operating budget that increased tax collections 5.2 percent to $231 million — virtually up to the state-imposed limit — and a $332.8 million capital budget that relies on $157.7 million in borrowing for the current year.

In recent years, budget spats have centered on the need and timing of big items such as more police officers, police and fire stations, road reconstruction and a Madison Public Market.

Now, a lame duck mayor and a council with three recently appointed members and all seats up for grabs in the spring enter the budget process with the usual fiscal constraints and more politics than usual.

“There will be some politics in everything,” City Council President Samba Baldeh said.

Finances are tight.

Expenditures are expected to rise $18 million, but revenues are projected to increase just $13.3 million, leaving a shortfall of $4.7 million, city finance director David Schmiedicke said. Meanwhile, 17 percent of the next operating budget, or $54 million, will be spent on paying for debt in 2019, he said.

Earlier this year, Soglin proposed a $17 vehicle registration fee, dubbed a “wheel tax,” to raise about $3.3 million to replace funding from the property tax now used for Metro Transit. But the proposal is in serious jeopardy as the city’s Finance Committee and two other committees have recommended rejecting it.

Soglin, in an interview, declined to reveal specifics, but said he intends to offer a budget with some initiatives that will not leave the next mayor and council in a fiscal lurch.

“You’ll see proposals from me in the budget,” he said. “Whether or not they are accepted by the council, I don’t know.”

A focus, he said, will be neighborhoods and violence prevention. “Some people want to address public safety with police and fire stations,” he said. “I’d rather focus on neighborhoods.”

Given the political landscape, Soglin may see a lot of proposed budget amendments, Baldeh said, predicting the council’s priorities would be public safety, streets and other basic services. “There is a lot at stake,” he said. “We don’t have enough money to cover all the things we want to do.”

Ald. Larry Palm, 12th District, a council member since 2005, expects Soglin to be relatively conservative and try to rein in spending. He said the mayor and council can find common ground on initiatives that promote social justice and racial equity.

“This is not the time to start doing big projects with the hope they get done later in your name,” Palm said. “I think Paul understands at least some of that.”

The council, he said, will quickly sniff out proposals or amendments that are blatantly political in an election year.

Ald. David Ahrens, 15th District, who has opposed Soglin initiatives, said the city will have enough revenue to continue operations, but that “expensive non-essentials” like the Public Market, a loss of state and federal funding for transit, and the likely failure of the wheel tax will allow the mayor to portray a budget crisis.

“And there are few things he likes more than that,” Ahrens said.

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