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Madison City Council rejects wheel tax, keeps Water Utility manager

September 6, 2018

The Madison City Council killed Mayor Paul Soglin’s proposed vehicle registration fee for good Tuesday, after the idea had largely been rejected in committee.

Council members didn’t discuss the proposal prior to shelving the $17 vehicle registration fee as part of a larger motion known as a consent agenda, which is generally used to approve measures that aren’t contentious.

Soglin offered the fee, commonly called a wheel tax, as a way to provide more money for transportation-related services and to shift some property tax revenue to non-transportation-related uses.

The registration fee was expected to bring in $3.3 million annually. Last fall, the Dane County Board approved a $28 vehicle registration fee, and the state has a $75-per-vehicle fee. If the City Council had approved the fee, residents would have had to pay $120 annually to register their vehicles.

The fee was rejected by the city’s Finance and Executive committees and Equal Opportunity Commission. The Transportation Policy and Planning Board supported the proposal.

In other action, council members voted 14-4 to retain the head of the city’s Water Utility, approving another five-year contract for manager Tom Heikkinen despite concerns that he failed to head off a $6 million deficit in the utility’s budget.

Ald. David Ahrens, who sits on the Water Utility Board, supported getting rid of Heikkinen.

“The issues with the general manager go back some years,” he said. “Something else must be done, a different way of managing this where managers know what’s going on and are willing to take responsibility for it.”

But Ald. Larry Palm said the deficit is a complex problem not necessarily attributable to one person.

“I agree with the assessment that maybe we got some improvements to be made, but I can’t throw it all out and say that there hasn’t been good things that have happened at the Water Utility through his leadership,” Palm, 12th District, said.

As part of the contract renewal, which comes with an increase in pay to $151,011 a year, Soglin is directing Heikkinen to put four measures in place to address the deficit by the end of the year: getting a rate increase finalized, determining what excess water utility property can be sold, formalizing a loan to the public utility from the city’s general fund and instituting quarterly financial reports.

Soglin said if these four directives aren’t in place by next year, he would dismiss Heikkinen.

Lauren Cnare, chairwoman of the Water Utility Board, and two employees of the Madison Water Utility expressed their support for Heikkinen and his leadership at Tuesday’s meeting.

Alds. Allen Arntsen, Keith Furman, Rebecca Kemble and Ahrens voted not to renew his contract. Ald. Arvina Martin was absent, and Council President Samba Baldeh did not vote because he was chairing the meeting.

The public utility discovered the deficit earlier this year during an audit of its 2017 finances. Utility staff attribute the deficit to lower-than-expected revenues. The Water Utility has applied to the Public Service Commission for a 30 percent rate increase, which had been planned before the deficit was discovered.

The council also approved fines for illegal drone use in Madison.

A fine of between $500 to $1,000 can be assessed for photographing or observing “another individual in a place or location where the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy”; flying a drone low enough over land or water so as “to intentionally interfere with the then existing use”; putting others in danger; or landing on someone’s property without permission.

A person not affiliated with the military found weaponizing a drone or in the possession of a weaponized drone also faces fines of between $500 and $4,000.

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