The Madison Common Council's first night of deliberations over the 2013 budget was relatively uneventful. The "process" ended up being the most hotly debated issue of the evening.
Just before midnight, in a unanimous voice vote, the council approved the 2013 capital budget, which totals $192 million. The plan, as amended, includes borrowing $91.4 million next year -- a drop of 3.4% from last year.
Before voting on the whole capital budget, the council took the unusual step of lumping several amendments (PDF) together in a single omnibus amendment, which was sponsored by 14 alders.
Some alders objected to that approach, preferring to debate each amendment individually on the floor, instead of making compromises behind the scenes ahead of time.
"I presume given the large number of sponsors, it'll be really hard to pull any [single item] out to have a discussion on them," said Ald. Larry Palm. "I don't understand why the rush to get something approved. I'm disappointed we don't have more discussion."
Ald. Jill Johnson agreed, saying, "The wrangling that we do is part of the public process.... There are tradeoffs in tonight's budget that are just terrifically difficult."
Others argued that bundling the items made sense because they're all part of the same fiscal picture. "In four years of budgeting, this was the first time I felt the council sat down and sorted through their priorities," said Ald. Bridget Maniaci. "What I really appreciate about what's being done here is we're having a comprehensive hard look at our priorities as a whole. You don't get everything you want. You have to share."
The omnibus amendment took $256,000 intended for neighborhood centers to use for an accelerated police academy class. It also added $150,000 to develop a biodigester program as the city looks to take food composting city wide. It reduced funding to purchase hybrid buses by $400,000. It nixed $100,000 to create a digital model of the isthmus, delaying that project until 2014. And it borrowed $500,000 for a new roof for Olbrich Gardens, instead of using money from the borrowing premium, as Soglin proposed.
The amendment package is geared to free up some money in the operating budget to fund the Overture Center $900,000 more than Soglin proposed -- an issue that will be debated tonight when the council takes up the operating budget. The mayor's proposal calls for $266.4 million in spending, a 5.4% increase.
Only four alders -- Satya Rhodes-Conway, Palm, Brian Solomon and Johnson -- voted against the amendment package. After the vote, the council went on to consider several other smaller, individual amendments.
The most controversial was a proposal to provide $75,000 to buy new playground equipment for Reynolds Park, 810 E. Mifflin St., in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood. The funding comes from impact fees -- money developers pay that go into a fund for park development. But Rhodes-Conway objected because many other neighborhoods are told they must fundraise to cover some of the cost of park improvements. It's the process, she said, not the project.
She pointed out that residents around Eken Park, 2407 Coolidge St., were told to raise money for park improvements. "It's not fair to ask a lower-income neighborhood to raise money for basic playground structures and let others off the hook."
She said the city needs to develop a consistent policy on playground improvements. Palm agreed, saying residents in one of his neighborhoods are currently selling pizza coupons to raise money for a park project. "A neighborhood that is so diverse and so economically varied as Tenney-Lapham can pony up some money to show they're investing," said Palm. "If they're not willing to come forward and make that investment, why should we?"
Others agreed the city is inconsistent, but didn't want to hold up the budget approval. "We're inconsistent all the time in all the things we do," said Solomon. "We can be inconsistent. But in this case we have a need, let's move forward with it."
The council also approved an amendment to provide almost $1 million to expand the Meadowridge Library, 5740 Raymond Rd.
The meeting started with a few hours of public comment, during which residents urged the council to give more money to the Overture Center and a GED program, hold off on ending the city's golf pro program, and nix a proposed 25-cent increase to bus fares.
The bus hike and Overture funding are sure to be fiercely debated Wednesday night. Soglin has hinted that he'll veto the budget because he's unhappy that the council is borrowing money to fund Overture Center. That would force emergency meetings to either override the veto -- 14 votes are needed -- or amend the budget further.