Madison's Moral Imperative is to Trickle Up, Not Down

Published in The Cap Times, August 13th, 2013

Could it be? Could madison be poised for a broad push to help the most needy? Mayor Paul Soglin outlined his view recently to the Madison Rotary that the business community should make a dedicated effort to combat poverty and close the wide economic gap between white residents and residents of color. A smattering of comments accompanying press of his remarks seemed to indicate that civic and business leaders were willing to take up the cause – but the workings of a wonky city committee shine a bright light on a different cause entirely.

This summer, the Madison TIF Review Committee has begun reviewing proposed changes to the city's tax incremental financing policy after an outcry from the business community over Madison's practices for handling TIF applications. In desperate fear of having projects usurped by our neighboring communities, a new policy is being considered that appears to reverse Madison's language emphasizing community needs and benefits in favor of pulling up to the developer of the day with a dump truck full of taxpayer money with few guarantees of enrichment of the broader public.

A number of troubling policy changes stick out in the proposals. A business can make a mere claim of other communities wooing its business, which would meet the city's "but for" clause (without TIF, the project would not be feasible); a business will neither need to prove it sought other avenues for funding nor will the wealth of the business be taken into account when deciding if it is eligible for support.

Those lax standards by themselves should be concern enough, but the requirement for community wide benefits, such as affordable housing or family supporting jobs, is tossed into the curbside compost with ease. The current policy in principle has been to aim for job creation in high-need neighborhoods that are blighted or underserved by current opportunities. Although city officials admitted the practical applications of that vision have been underwhelming, at least standards geared toward them are in place. What would take the place of these standards? A plan to create family-supporting jobs BUT also jobs that offer "career ladders" toward family-supporting jobs. Exactly what are these career ladder jobs, what mechanisms will exist to make sure those employees are moving up them, and does this open the door to providing taxpayer support for below-living-wage jobs? As an additional gut punch, the proposed policy would eliminate the set-aside for affordable housing in projects and allow market rate housing applications for TIF. Equally disturbing is the apparent lack of concern for the impact of these changes on our schools. Forty-five percent of the revenues involved come from the school district; the choices made will have a real-life effect on the quality of Madison schools, redirecting needed tax dollars away from children and families. Oddly, no attempt has been made to involve the Madison school district in the process of reviewing the proposed TIF changes.

At some point we as a community must look at the poverty situation as a moral one and as a moral failing that is ours. Once we fail those living at the edges of society, we fail ourselves. Only when we find ways to raise the quality of life for the unfortunate few, will we raise the quality of life for us all. To do so means discarding trendy buzzwords and branding consultants and digging for the root of the issue. Madison continues to receive people seeking safety and opportunity: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be employed and educated. We in return give those people unaffordable housing and service-industry jobs that don't come close to sheltering and providing for their families. The proposed revisions to the city's policies seem to lock us into the worldview of trickle down, while we have a moral imperative to trickle up. Otherwise, all we will have for our efforts is an even wider economic gap and further diminished quality of life.

We truly will be two Madisons in that sense: the have wants and the have needs – and the people who want something from all of us to enrich themselves appear to have little interest in helping those of us in need.