About once a month, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz hosts a brown bag lunch in his office for city alders. He uses the meeting to float proposals. Last week, he dropped a few bombshells.
Cieslewicz, who is currently drafting his 2009 operating budget, suggested eliminating funding for WYOU, Madison's community access channel, on the air since 1975.
"If this were a normal budget year, I wouldn't propose this," explains Cieslewicz in an interview.
Madison is facing a tough year, with Cieslewicz asking city departments to recommend 5% budget cuts. He wants to give the $140,000 WYOU now gets (from a monthly fee paid to cable subscribers) to Madison City Channel, which broadcasts government meetings and civic events. This would spare the city from having to supplement City Channel's budget with property tax dollars.
The $140,000 makes up 80% of WYOU's budget, says Guy Swansbro, the station's interim director. Without it, "It would all be over. It would certainly wipe us out."
WYOU has organized a petition drive to save the channel's funding (the public can sign at www.wyou.org), and station officials will meet with the mayor this week. "This isn't the first time we've had to fight the city," says Swansbro.
Mary Cardona, director of the Wisconsin Association of PEG Access Channels, thinks it's a mistake to de-fund WYOU. "The viewers are going to be the big losers," she says. "The people of Madison have a lot to say. It would be a real shame if they didn't have a voice on cable anymore."
Cieslewicz says the Internet fulfills the public's need to broadcast: "A lot of what WYOU does is now done on YouTube."
The mayor insists his goal is not to kill WYOU, but to find efficiencies. "I understand WYOU provides a service," he says. "I want to discuss with them if there's a way to do it differently."
For instance, he suggests that WYOU could share studio space with Madison City Channel. That would allow it to continue broadcasting. "At the end of the day," says Cieslewicz, "you might not see much difference."
Raising bus fares
Cieslewicz has also proposed raising Madison Metro's cash fare by 50 cents to $2. Doing so, he says, would raise an extra $650,000 in 2009.
"If we do that, we can add some service back," he says. He wants to restore Route 10, which ran from the east isthmus to the UW campus, until it was cut a few years ago.
Metro will likely see some kind of fare increase next year. When the agency submitted its 2009 budget, it included a 25-cent increase, just to cover its operating costs. Cieslewicz blames rising fuel prices, noting Metro paid $1.47 a gallon for gas in 2000 but has averaged $4.06 a gallon so far in 2008.
"Unless I want to cut service, I have to raise fares," says Cieslewicz. The city's Transit and Parking Commission has final say on how much fares are raised, but Cieslewicz says if they don't okay at least a 25-cent increase, "I'd have to cut the budget. That would back into other kinds of service cuts."
Susan De Vos, head of the Madison Area Bus Advocates, says the group's members have mixed feelings about raising fares: "It took us all by surprise."
De Vos personally does not support the idea, especially since the city is planning to spend $64 million on road improvements in 2009. She believes the mayor encourages urban sprawl by funding roads, but not Metro.
"I have to wonder about a mayor who runs as an environmentalist," she says. "When you look at his actions, it's contrary to that."
Hiring a city lobbyist
Cieslewicz made one final proposal at the meeting last week. He wants the city of Madison to withdraw from the Alliance of Cities, a statewide lobbying group.
"Because the alliance is such a large organization, it's difficult for us to be very well heard," he says. "We might be better off having our own [lobbyist]."
Moreover, the Alliance has lobbied against bills the city supported, including a provision to give property-tax exemptions to low-income housing providers. Cieslewicz says the group "represents a large number of cities, so there will always be different points of view." The group currently represents 40 Wisconsin cities.
Madison spends about $40,000 a year to be part of the Alliance. Hiring an outside lobbyist instead would save about $10,000, says Cieslewicz. He adds that having a city lobbyist would be especially useful if Democrats take back the state Assembly this fall.
"I haven't invested too much in the Legislature because it's always had one Republican house that would stand in the way of anything Madison wanted." But if the state had a Democratic governor and Legislature, the city may be able to snare more shared revenue and transit aids. "It's probably time to get more serious about it."
Wolbert v. Levin for board seat
It's not getting much attention, but there is a County Board race on the ballot this Nov. 4. Two liberals are vying to replace Dave Worzala in Dist. 10 on Madison's west side. (Worzala was appointed county treasurer this summer.)
Brad Wolbert, 50, is endorsed by Progressive Dane and works for the state Department of Natural Resources.
"I have a lot of background in environmental issues," he says. "These are issues the County Board is pretty critical on."
Jeremy Levin, 30, is a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Medical Society. He's also worked in the state Legislature and is endorsed by state Sen. Fred Risser and County Board Chair Scott McDonell.
"We worked together in the Assembly fighting Republicans," says McDonell.
Both candidates support commuter rail and a Regional Transit Authority, with its own taxing ability.
Whoever wins could be appointed to the county's Health and Human Needs Commission, which Worzala used to chair. The commission oversees half the county's $460 million budget, as well as its Human Services Department. In the past year, the state has investigated the department twice over child fatalities in its child protective services unit.
Wolbert doubts he should be on the committee, since he has no human services experience. "I wouldn't want to be more of a burden by having to get up to speed on that stuff."
Levin says that's a key difference between himself and Wolbert. His experience as a health-care lobbyist "makes me very qualified and a more effective advocate. I don't think there would be a long learning curve."
But Levin fails to offer any ideas for how the county should manage its human services budget or what changes it should make in the department. Pressed for specifics about what, exactly, his experience would do for the county, Levin says: "You learn who you need to talk to, to get the right information. You can't know everything about everything." Sounds like a learning curve.
Both candidates see problems with the county's beleaguered 911 Center. Levin says the county should prioritize upgrading the center's computer system, but adds, "I'd want to talk more with the [911 oversight] board and get their opinion."
Wolbert decries the county's failure to release complaints about its 911 service. "They should be willing to share those and, more importantly, they should be working on them."