In his proposed 2015 capital budget, Mayor Paul Soglin has offered his challengers in next April's election a wide selection of items to pounce on.
First, a quick primer on the city budget process. The city passes two budgets each year. The capital budget is for brick-and-mortar projects like buildings and streets. The operating budget is for annual expenses, mostly pay for city employees. Think of it this way: The capital budget pays for police cars and stations while the operating budget pays police officers' wages and benefits.
The mayor introduced his capital budget last week (the operating budget is due the first Tuesday in October), and it is filled with potential issues for his announced challengers, Ald. Scott Resnick and former Ald. Bridget Maniaci. Here are a few issues that should be discussed in the campaign ahead.
Increasing debt. During the 2011 campaign (in which I was his opponent), Soglin promised to reduce the percentage of the city's operating budget that went to pay off debt incurred in its capital budgets. It was one of two major promises he made at every stop. In 2011 that percentage stood at 12%. After three Soglin budgets it hasn't gone down. In fact, it has increased to 14% and is on a track to be at 22% in four years.
Belated interest in homelessness. Soglin's second major campaign promise was to end poverty. He didn't mince words in 2011. He said at every opportunity that he was going to launch a new local war on poverty. For three years he did virtually nothing save for one proposal he called "Helping Hands Homeward," which would have bought bus tickets to move the homeless out of town. Now, seven months before his reelection, he has rediscovered the issue. Maniaci was right to blast Soglin for his belated interest in an issue that he had harped on three years ago, while Resnick made the same point using more reserved language.
Losing ground on the environment. Cities across the nation are launching organic material collection and recycling programs. The waste can be turned into energy through a biodigester, and it has been estimated that the program could reduce the amount of material going to landfills by about a third. A pilot program in a couple of Madison neighborhoods turned out to be overwhelmingly popular and successful, but Soglin has now delayed its citywide implementation. One of the reasons cited for stopping the project was that the city couldn't afford it because it was facing higher landfill cost, which would have been reduced by a program that kept more stuff out of the waste stream.
Delaying Monroe Street reconstruction again. As soon as Soglin's budget was announced, the Vilas neighborhood listserv lit up with disappointment. One neighbor wrote, "Very disappointing. The street is in awful shape; I know two bicyclists who fell on Monroe Street this summer and were injured because their tires hit broken pavement. Businesses are making plans based on timetables that keep changing, and many of us have given up considerable time attending meetings to give our input about the impending reconstruction. Cities need to deliver basic services, and the rebuilding of Monroe Street is one of those basic services that is long overdue."
Soglin has not been popular in recent elections on the city's vote-rich near west side. This won't help.
Judge Doyle Square misfires. No major project in the city has been more mishandled than this one. Soglin has delayed the project by more than three years and changed it significantly from its original concept without any studies to back him up. For example, despite two studies saying conclusively that the public market needed to be downtown in order to succeed and would be best situated on what is now the Judge Doyle Square site, Soglin decided that it should be somewhere else. Now, with the Common Council balking at the huge price tag on the overall project, the mayor is trying to salvage what he can.
But what he proposes just won't work. Soglin wants to go ahead with the parking portion of the plan without knowing what the rest of the project will look like. Without having a complete project there is no way to judge how much expensive parking is needed. At $20,000 a stall for above-ground parking and twice as much for a below-grade ramp, getting that number right is crucial.
Soglin also would go ahead with a $30 million renovation of the Madison Municipal Building for office space. But that's more per square foot than a new building would cost, and the Municipal Building was never designed to be modern office space. What we'll get is inadequate space for more than it would cost to build new. Council President Chris Schmidt had the right idea when he proposed that the city keep its options open to allow for a sensitive adaptive reuse of that building, probably as part of a new hotel.
In a word, the mayor's capital budget is a mess. But for his challengers it's a beautiful mess.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.