Mayor Dave Cieslewicz may not replace Dorothy Conniff as head of the city's Community Services Office. Conniff is retiring, after 30 years with the city, on Sept. 4. Her job has not been advertised, and the mayor is considering folding Community Services into the Community Development Block Grant Office, both part of the city's planning department.
"This, to me, is kind of a blow," says Conniff. "Block Grant has a lot to do with housing. The department as a whole is organized toward the physical development of the city. It doesn't provide the nurturing environment for human services."
Community Services offers child-care assistance for low-income families, accredits child-care centers and provides funding for community nonprofits. It also oversees city programs serving senior citizens.
Conniff is miffed that the mayor waited until after she announced her retirement to talk seriously about merging Community Services with Block Grant. The city reorganized its planning department earlier this year, and Conniff says there was "no indication" the mayor wanted to combine the two. "I thought it was settled," she says.
Cieslewicz says he hasn't made up his mind what to do. "I'm a whole long way from deciding to merge Community Services into Block Grant," he says. "That's not imminent. Keeping things the way they are is very much on the table."
Cieslewicz won't decide until this fall, when he formalizes the city's budget. But he says Conniff's departure offers a chance "to step back and ask if there are different ways to do things."
It's well known that the Community Services and Block Grant departments - headed by Conniff and Hickory Hurie, respectively - have often been at odds, particularly with regard to city initiatives in Allied Drive. Cieslewicz says combining the two departments might help: "I want them all feeling like they're part of the same team."
But Conniff worries that, if Community Services doesn't have its own manager, services and staff will be cut. "Suppose the mayor says, 'Cut 3% from the budget,' and your main priority is economic development," she says. "Why not cut a child-care specialist? After all, you have six of them." The planning department as a whole is focused on economic development, says Conniff: "It's not generally understood to be taking care of people who are poor or vulnerable, or to be providing child care."
Cieslewicz dismisses such concerns. "I don't really think that will happen," he says. "I have a public hearing every year before the budget, and the hearing is almost 100% populated by community-services contractors. There is tremendous political clout behind these contracts."
Conniff says much of that advocacy owes to an active department head. "You need somebody to really advocate for these very unusual programs," she says, adding that Madison is the only city in the country that accredits child-care centers. "I really hope the mayor will find he needs a Community Services officer. Without one, this whole thing is heavily tilted toward economic development."
The future of Regent Street
Hanna Cook-Wallace is afraid that a proposed neighborhood plan for Regent Street will turn it into a "concrete canyon."
"It doesn't take into effect the quality-of-life issue for people in the neighborhood," says Cook-Wallace, who owns Studio Jewelers. "I thought we were supposed to be creating something other than the developer's dream here."
The plans calls for seven-to-eight-story buildings at the Park Street end of Regent, eight stories near Camp Randall Stadium, and buildings two to six stories elsewhere on the street. And it allows developers to build up to the lot line.
"There's no open space in the plan as it now exists," says Cook-Wallace. "I'd like to see a human scale on Regent."
But Ald. Robbie Webber, who represents part of the neighborhood, likes the proposed density, especially at Park Street. "A major intersection is an appropriate place to have tall buildings. It would match things already there."
And she thinks the neighborhood will be pedestrian-friendly, with ground-floor retail and display windows. "It's something to look at when you walk along."
Cook-Wallace also worries about the impact of increased development on land values. A few years ago, she tried to buy property off State Street. "When the Overture Center was announced, the price went from $750,000 to $1.3 million. It's not unusual in the downtown for property to go for 30% over the assessed value now."
If Regent Street is similarly developed, she says land will only be available to "deep-pocket developers."
Webber counters that increased land values are a good thing: "I think it's healthy for a city to have a lot of activity."
Cook-Wallace hopes neighbors come to a city hearing on the plan on July 26, 6 p.m., at the Neighborhood House Community Center. "The plan will be in place for 50 years," she says. "That's a long time to make up a bunch of rules, without sufficient input."
Cieslewicz has backed off his plan to build a downtown streetcar line until after Dane County puts in its commuter rail line. But that hasn't stopped his critics from continuing to complain about streetcars.
On his blog, former Mayor Paul Soglin blasted Cieslewicz for rescinding his pledge to hold a referendum on streetcars. Cieslewicz now says a countywide referendum to approve a Regional Transit Authority, with a sales tax to fund commuter rail and other types of transit, would cover streetcars too.
"It is classical bait-and-switch," wrote Soglin. "Knowing a trolley referendum would sink faster than the Titanic, and a lot uglier, Cieslewicz plans to tie it to a commuter rail referendum." Doing so, says Soglin, "torpedoes" commuter rail. "I, for one, will vote against any referendum that includes trolleys."
Cieslewicz says the referendum is about creating a long-term plan for the region's transportation, including rail, buses and roads. "People will have the opportunity to look at the full package and decide whether they want it."
Streetcars and commuter rail could work together in a transit system, even running on the same tracks or using the same train cars, says Cieslewicz. "Once people understand the whole system vision, I don't think it will be much of an issue."
Yes, that really was Jennifer Alexander, head of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, hovering behind Cieslewicz and Dane County Exec Kathleen Falk at the press conference to announce their plan for a Regional Transit Authority. Does that mean Alexander - and by extension, the conservative Chamber - supports the proposed half-cent sales tax to fund transit?
"A lot of questions still have to be figured out," says Alexander. Like who will run the transit authority and how its funds will be allocated. Neither the Chamber nor the Collaboration Council, a Dane County business group it runs, has taken a formal position on the sales tax.
But businesses want improved transportation. "Dane County is an importer of labor," says Alexander. "A regional transit system is needed for business. At this point, we are willing participants in the discussion."