The way Ald. Mark Clear sees it, the only way for the city to deal with the one-two punch of a poor economy and reduced state funding is through economic development.
Trouble is, the city doesn't have a lot of options when it comes to spurring development. Which is why Clear believes one tool the city does have - tax increment financing, or TIF - should be used more frequently.
"I'm very bullish on TIF and think it should be used more often," Clear says.
To that end, Clear is pushing for the establishment of TIF district 41 - which would include a small section of land bordered by University Avenue, Whitney Way and Old Middleton Road - to help pay for infrastructure improvements for a proposed UW Health Digestive Clinic, two future clinics and a hotel and office space. The development plan by Krupp General Contractors calls for demolishing the buildings that housed the now defunct Irish Waters bar, the Merrill Springs Motel and the former offices of Marshall Erdman & Associates. The total for all proposed developments is $130 million. Based on that figure, city staff estimate the TIF district could qualify for at least $8.1 million in loans.
TIF defers some property tax payments to school districts and other governmental bodies until the TIF district generates enough in increased tax revenues to pay off the loan.
The Common Council is expected to vote on district 41 at its Sept. 2 meeting. But Mayor Paul Soglin is not in a rush to form new TIF districts.
"There's a number of districts that aren't functioning well," Soglin says. "Part of that is the downturn in the economy, which I don't think anyone could have foreseen."
Though this would be the 41st TIF district the city has formed, it has only 12 that are currently open. Madison TIF coordinator Joe Gromacki says on average the city closes TIF districts 12 years after opening them. State law requires they be closed within 20 to 27 years, depending on the type of development.
None of the city's current districts are in arrears, though, adds Gromacki. "We've got a couple that we're watching, where we were expecting some growth. But it's a down economy."
Soglin says he's concerned about taking property temporarily off the tax rolls at a time when the economy is hurting and state funding is being slashed. "This is a concern any time you create a TIF - whether you can afford it or not."
Clear says the city can't afford not to. "It's an investment," he says. "In the past, TIF investments have paid off extremely well, and I think we should be doing more of them, not less."
Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway thinks the city is fairly conservative in its approach to using TIF funding, though she says its approach needs to be continually reevaluated, since market conditions are in flux.
She agrees TIF should be used in slow economic times. "The whole point is you're using this funding to do something that otherwise wouldn't happen."
Matt Tucker, Madison's zoning administrator, knows that residents are going to have a hard time figuring out the city's newly proposed zoning regulations.
"In order to understand what the new provisions mean, you have to understand what the existing zoning is," he says. "That's kind of complex."
For instance, people might look at their property and see it's in an area that allows apartment buildings and conclude that they would be able to tear down their house and build an apartment building. "If you dig deeper into the code, in reality they can't, because they don't have enough land or parking," Tucker says.
The city began rewriting its zoning ordinances about three years ago, and the process is finally nearing completion. In March, the Common Council approved the new zoning code (PDF), which defined each zoning-use type (what is permissible in residential neighborhoods, for instance). Now it has completed the first draft of the zoning map, which applies these zones throughout the city. Says Tucker, "We think it's a good first cut, but we know there'll be changes."
The new maps will be coming to a neighborhood near you for review, beginning Sept. 7, when the first public hearing is held at the city of Madison East Side Streets Facility, 4602 Sycamore Ave., from 4 to 8 p.m. Also in the works is a website where residents will be able to enter their address to see what the old and new codes allow. (Click here for a complete list of hearings.)
Seeking shelter from the storm
Two weeks ago, Isthmus reported on a crisis facing the city's homeless population. With winter fast approaching, two daytime refuges for the homeless are going to be off limits: the downtown library, which will close for renovations, and the Capitol cafeteria, which has been closed to the public since the protests.
The problem has attracted the attention of Downtown Madison Inc., which is spearheading an effort to bring together representatives from all the downtown churches to look for solutions.
DMI president Susan Schmitz says the organization recognized a need to act.
"We've been talking about getting the churches together anyway," she says. "Now with the library closing, I don't know where these [homeless] folks are going to go."
Mayor Paul Soglin says his staff is also looking into the issue, though he is pessimistic the city can do much to help. Madison is facing severe funding cuts from the state, and some 70 layoffs are being contemplated.
"The city is not in a position to provide housing," Soglin says. "There's something that really needs to be made clear in this discussion. As the federal government and the state of Wisconsin ratchet down on the poor, cities like Madison do not have the capacity to solve all these problems."