Mayor Paul Soglin (left) says the budget council approved last week is 'tying the hands of the future,' but Ald. Mark Clear (right) calls it a 'completely manufactured crisis.'
Mayor Paul Soglin is threatening to veto the 2015 budget the Madison Common Council approved last week, angering alders and setting up a showdown for next week.
On Friday, Soglin held a press conference to outline his concerns, primarily that the city is borrowing too much for capital projects and that the budget doesn't include a half-percent raise for non-police and fire employees.
But a defiant council -- including some of Soglin's allies -- have called the mayor's protests "electioneering."
"This is a completely manufactured crisis that is all about scoring political points and not at all about serving the city," says Ald. Mark Clear, who has often sparred with the mayor. "Part of this crisis has been created by the mayor's inability to build a working relationship with the council over four years."
"It's electioneering, it's not governance, in any way that respects the legislative process," agrees Ald. Marsha Rummel.
Several alders say the mayor should have fully aired his concerns during the budget process. Some accused him of trying to renegotiate the budget "behind closed doors."
Early Wednesday, the council approved a $283.1 million operating budget and a $264.7 million capital budget. Soglin has until midnight Tuesday to veto the budget.
At Friday's press conference, he said the spending plan simply borrows too much, putting the city in a precarious financial situation in four or five years.
"If this budget was only for 2015 and we didn't care what happened Jan. 1, 2016, it's a fine budget," Soglin said. "When we look four or five years out, there's just too much in there."
He added: "We've been on a trajectory where we're pushing 20%-22% in terms of debt service. Debt service at that high of rate is unconscionable.... We're not going to have budgets that are functional in four or five years."
Soglin said he would like to see $20 million to $30 million cut from the capital budget and identified a few places where cuts could be made.
The council had moved up two projects in the budget, including a new west-side police precinct to next year and a new south-side fire station in 2017. Soglin also wants to delay construction on a food biodigester that the council returned to the budget, and he called for a moratorium on new neighborhood centers after 2016. He also called for downscaling renovation of the Madison Municipal Building -- expected to cost $30 million -- by only doing "what's essential to preserve the building" for now.
Although Soglin says he supports all of these initiatives, and some are "near and dear to my heart," they will have to wait until the city is in better financial shape.
Ald. David Ahrens, who has fought with the mayor over some issues, agrees with him on the high borrowing expenses. About 15% of the city's budget now goes toward debt payments.
"If we don't add one additional capital cost between now and 2020, [the debt service will] go up to 22%," Ahrens says. Such an increase would require the city to cut everyday operating expenses by an equivalent 7%.
"It's probably laying off 150 people," Ahrens says. "It's a staggering amount. What do you do? Close the parks department?"
Even so, Ahrens says the mayor's budget wasn't much better. "He was certainly going in the same direction."
Other alders agree the city needs to rein in its borrowing, but say it's not something that can be done in a few days or weeks, but will take a concerted effort and a plan.
Ald. Chris Schmidt, the council president, says that mayor's own budget proposal increased the city's debt ratio by a similar margin. The mayor's proposed capital budget came in at $247.7 million, $17 million less than council approved.
Clear says that just because money is in the capital budget doesn't mean it will be used.
"For example, there's a ton of money in there for a public market," he says. "I'm still skeptical about the actual value of the public market. But even though we have money in the budget doesn't make it happen."
With the operating budget, Soglin said the city should be spending more, by giving all non-police and fire employees a half-percent raise, on top of the 1.5% raise he provided in his proposed budget. (Police and fire are scheduled for a 3% raise next year.)
Rummel says she resents the mayor's tactics.
"It's his job to figure out wages and benefits for city employees. It's not our responsibility," she says. "It's his job to put the money in the budget for them, but then he turns around and blames us."
In a statement, Schmidt and council president pro tem Denise DeMarb wrote: "We object to the timing of the demand that these issues be addressed after the budget was adopted. Making such changes after the public process is over does not allow for a clear and open process that the citizens of Madison have come to expect and deserve."
But Soglin says the council is oblivious to financial realities. "When I look back on councils over the decades, this council is very different," he said. "There isn't the necessary concern about the out years, what happens two, three, four years out in terms of maintaining basic city services and the basic structure for the city."
"We're tying the hands of the future," he added. "This is not coming from the perspective of how do you shrink government down to the point where it can't do anything. It's coming from the perspective that we have things to do that we won't be able to do."
Several council members say they feel Soglin is playing politics ahead of his reelection campaign next April. He is facing four possible opponents, including Ald. Scott Resnick, former Ald. Bridget Maniaci and activist Christopher Daly. Former Dane County Supv. Richard Brown is also reportedly planning to announce soon.
Says Clear: "This is about trying to reinforce a message that is not accurate, that Paul is the [penny-pincher] who has gotten the capital budget under control."
The mayor's desire to give employees a raise, Clear says, is "all about sucking up to AFSCME," the union the represents many city employees, ahead of an election next April.
Since Soglin was reelected mayor in April 2011, budget fights with the city council have become an almost annual tradition, with the exception of deliberations last November over this year's budget.