Madison developer Cliff Fisher is bothered to see homeless men on the Capitol Square. He wishes they were somewhere else.
"People come here and all they see is people standing around, begging for money," says Fisher, who owns more than a dozen downtown properties. "We have the most beautiful Capitol, and you see people panhandling."
Fisher has proposed moving the downtown men's shelter, currently housed at Grace Episcopal Church on West Washington Avenue (just blocks from his upscale condo development, Metropolitan Place), to the Lussier Teen Center, at 827 East Washington Ave.
"That's the only area it could be because there's no residential housing there," says Fisher. "I don't think anybody wants to have a homeless shelter next door to them."
Porchlight, the nonprofit group that runs the drop-in shelter, is wary of the move.
"There's a lot of stuff that has to happen before we'd consider doing that," says Steven Schooler, Porchlight's executive director.
He notes that Porchlight currently pays Grace Episcopal about $900 a month in rent. The organization cannot afford to pay anything more and has no funds to buy a new building. "I'm not going to come up with several hundred thousand," says Schooler.
Fisher proposed trying to raise about $700,000 in private donations to buy the East Washington building, now owned by the Goodman Atwood Community Center. This new facility would have a large kitchen, private dormitory rooms, even a courtyard. Porchlight's current space in the basement of the church has "no windows in the place," says Fisher. "It's a church, not a shelter. It was not designed to be."
The teen center is slated to move to the new Goodman Atwood Center, which will open next May. Its current location, eyed by Fisher, is next door to the Rainbow Project, a nonprofit that works with abused and at-risk children. Schooler says this group would have to be relocated before the shelter could move in.
"Most abused children are abused by whom?" he says. "Having a great number of men in the area is not healthy for the children."
After a chilly reception from city officials - including an unproductive meeting with Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz - Fisher on Tuesday withdrew his offer. "I'm not going to put my neck out on the line and not get anywhere." But he argues that the idea of transforming the teen center remains viable "if enough people get involved."
Ald. Marsha Rummel is hesitant to move the shelter into her district, away from the Square. "In some ways," she says, "the current location helps the population get reintegrated in the community and connected to services."
Whose cops are they?
Some Madison alders are worried that the 30 new cops Chief Noble Wray seeks in the 2008 budget will disproportionately benefit the west side, the site of two neighborhood meetings on crime that drew more than 400 residents each.
"I don't want to feel like I have to have a crime seminar," said south side Ald. Julia Kerr on Monday, at a special presentation by Madison police to the city council. "I want to know that the people footing this bill are going to get something out of it."
Wray insists the 30 new officers will be dispersed throughout the city. "One of the things I would not do is just have a response to the west side," he says, adding that doing so would merely displace crime to other neighborhoods. "We want a citywide response."
If the city council approves the new officers, Wray plans to expand community policing teams, hire more patrol officers and add a second officer on gangs. "We only have one full-time citywide," he says. "The demand for that is unbelievable."
But Wray will not replace the neighborhood officers removed from Willy Street, Truax and Todd Drive this year. "I would not put an officer where they're not needed," he says.
Ald. Rummel says people are upset about crime because the MPD often does not respond to noise complaints or other non-emergency issues: "This stuff is going on and they don't feel like the police are paying any attention."
Wray admits that when people report crimes on the department's Web site, "in reality, no one there calls back." He says the department will fix that. "It's a good system, there's just a need for a human touch."
Free money available
If you want to convert an old rental house in the Bassett neighborhood into a single-family home, there's free money available to do it. The city of Madison has set aside $800,000 for the next two years to offer small cap loans for rehabs. Homebuyers can get up to $60,000. The loans are forgivable, with homeowners owing nothing if they stay for at least 10 years.
"Some of these houses are a good size, with yards attached to them," says Mark Olinger, director of the planning department. "This is another chance for people to live downtown, if they don't want to live in condos."
In 2006, Madison had $400,000 available for loans, but no takers. This time, says Olinger, the city will do a better job of marketing the program. "I think we will get calls," he says.
The money for the rehab loans comes from Bassett's highly successful tax-increment financing district - the same one Mayor Cieslewicz now wants to end. By closing that district and another on the southeast side, the city, the Madison school district, Dane County and MATC would share approximately $11 million in leftover funds.
Ald. Mike Verveer says the mayor agreed to fund Bassett's small cap loan program for just two years.
"I'm very frustrated that the district is being dissolved," sighs Verveer, adding wryly, "It's a wonderful way to close the budget gap when you need 30 new police officers."
Verveer says there are still projects within Bassett that the TIF district was supposed to fund, including planting new trees, replacing bus shelters and reconstructing streets. He's asking the council to approve funding for these projects: "I'm rushing to get things done before the district closes."
'This would devastate me!'
Madison resident Jennifer Luckhardt is anxiously watching the state budget fight to find out if she'll lose her low-income tax credit. Republican lawmakers want to make the Homestead Tax Credit available only to low-income seniors over the age of 65, or to those who are married or have dependents. Right now, anyone who owns a home and is low-income can get the refund.
"This would devastate me!" says Luckhardt, 48.
Disabled by rheumatoid arthritis, ill with cancer, and living in a mobile home, Luckhardt uses the approximately $800 yearly refund to make home repairs and pay for homeowners insurance. "The refund is a lifesaver for me."
Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) did not return a call.
"They just want to strip everything away from us," complains Luckhardt. "They want to strip all of our social services. They've got no hearts, no morals, no souls."