Some alders are delighted with Mayor Paul Soglin's plan to allow citizens to help the city set its budget priorities.
"It's an exciting proposition," says Ald. Lisa Subeck. "For many years I was on the other side as a citizen, but usually by the time citizens give their input, it's too late."
The city will hold a series of five meetings, each covering a different topic area. The goal is to engage citizens to help shape the budget, as opposed to the normal process of commenting on a budget that's already been written.
Each 7 p.m. meeting will be held in a different part of the city. The first meeting on community development and services will be on July 26 at the Urban League office, and the next one on administration is Aug. 1 at Olbrich Botanical Gardens. After that are meetings on infrastructure (Aug. 16, Madison Senior Center), large community facilities and parks (Aug. 22, Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ) and public safety (Aug. 31, Warner Park Recreation Center).
While the goal is to bring citizens into the budgeting process earlier, some alders hope the effort also helps reestablish trust with constituents.
"We need their input to do our jobs well," says Common Council president Laura Cnare. "Too often citizens walk away feeling like they've been ignored. We're hoping there's some spinoff value to reengage citizens."
But the new approach isn't without shortcomings. Some worry about citizen turnout. "[The previous mayor] had input meetings that weren't well attended," says Ald. Steve King.
King also says that, while members of the public can provide input within the five topic areas discussed at the meetings, they won't have much say in setting budget priorities between agencies.
"We have to cut $11 million," says King. "Do you want us take it out of streets or public safety? We'll have to ultimately decide what those priorities are. We won't have input on the tradeoffs."
King does believe, however, that this is a good first step in fostering a better culture of citizen input.
Earlier this month Soglin called for a 3% property tax increase and a 5% cut to city agencies. The mayor also cautioned that cuts might result in layoffs or furloughs.
"Every department will hurt," says Ald. Scott Resnick. "If we were taking away the meat in previous budgets, now we're taking away the bones. I do like the mayor's approach of bringing citizens into the discussion."