As Madison officials struggle to draft another tight budget, they're faced with a familiar quandary: not enough money to do everything they want.
"Everybody wants more money and there ain't no money," explains Ald. David Ahrens.
But Ahrens believes he's found a way to bring in a little more cash. Ahrens, who sits on the Olbrich Botanical Society's board of directors, notes that Olbrich Botanical Gardens, unlike similar facilities, doesn't charge admission.
Ahrens proposes charging non-city residents 12 and older $5 to visit the gardens. City residents would continue to get free admission, although Ahrens says they're still paying their share through taxes.
The gardens are operated as a public-private partnership between the city of Madison Parks Division and the Botanical Society. The city this year contributed more than $1.1 million toward the operation of Olbrich, which has asked for almost $1.2 million for next year. In addition, the city is expected to borrow $5 million in 2017 and 2018 toward the construction of a new visitors and education center.
However, Ahrens says most of the visitors to Olbrich come from out of town. He cites a survey done by Olbrich from February and March 2012 that found 380 of the 940 visitors (or 40%) lived in city zip codes. With an average 250,000 visitors a year, that means about 150,000 non-residents are visiting each year.
"The gardens are an ongoing expense for Madison taxpayers," Ahrens says. "We bear half the overall cost of the gardens, but most of the users of the gardens are not Madison taxpayers. This change would require [non-residents] to contribute some portion."
The city already charges $2 for the Bolz Conservatory, an indoor tropical garden. But the rest of the gardens are free.
Ahrens researched the 18 largest non-university botanical gardens in the United States and found that 16 charge admission to non-residents and 13 charge residents. Boerner Gardens in Milwaukee recently started charging all visitors -- including Milwaukee residents -- a $5 admission.
Meanwhile, every Madison household, Ahrens calculates, is paying roughly $12 a year to operate Olbrich. Imposing a $5 fee on non-residents could generate up to $750,000 a year.
Under his proposal, members of Olbrich Botanical Gardens who don't live in the city would get free admission -- which he thinks will encourage more people to join. Memberships currently start at $40 a year.
Most members of the Olbrich Botanical Society's board of directors declined to comment on the proposal. Dick Wagner, a longtime board member, sees a value in keeping the gardens free.
"In general, the free gardens are a great asset to the community," Wagner says. "The community needs to have a discussion about this, rather than a rush to impose a new fee."
Even if the Common Council agrees to include the fee in the 2015 budget, the Parks Commission would still have to approve it, says Laura Whitmore, the Parks Division's marketing and communications coordinator.
Ald. Joe Clausius, a member of the Parks Commission, is skeptical of the idea. He points out that Madison was just ranked in the country, in part because of places like the free gardens. He adds: "We're trying to get tourists to come here."
Ahrens notes that the city charges people to use many of its other facilities. It has various fees, including for facility rentals, golfing, disc golf, boat launches and mooring, cross country skiing and the Goodman Pool.
"The fees we charge are in many cases pretty substantial," Ahrens says. "We also charge, in many areas, one rate for residents and a higher rate for non-residents."
"Given the fact that almost every major garden has done this for years, this is something that's overdue," he adds. "People are more or less surprised when they come in from out of town and see it's for free."