Newsletter Sneak Peak: Citizens' Budget Concerns

Written by Sue Pastor, Progressive Dane's Policy Committee Co-Chair

Published in PD's June Newsletter

MadisonWIseal.pngCity staff held four conversations related to budget throughout the month of May.  Organized around themes chosen by the city, each took place in a different part of the city and provided citizens an opportunity to discuss budget ideas submitted to the IdeaScale site on line - or introduced during the conversation. Staff began each evening by providing participants with a list of submissions related to the night's theme, but participants' concerns, especially in each of the last three discussions, clearly centered around equity.

The third conversation, at Jefferson Middle School on May 23, is a good illustration. Among ideas presented that fit with the designated theme of “Be Healthy & Safe/Live”, was the top vote-getter in all categories, Curbside Composting, with 257 votes as of June 5. (Keep in mind the population of Madison, about 240,000, while evaluating all these numbers.)   Recycling Coordinator George Dreckmann was prepared to talk about composting, as well as a vision for a biodigester in the future.  

South District Captain of Police Joe Balles was on hand, as were officials from Madison Fire, District 15 Alder David Ahrens and the Water Utility’s General Manager, Tom Heikkinen.  At each table, citizens wanted to talk about homelessness and affordable housing.    Participant Laurel Fletcher summed up the will of the group, noting that the standard for any budget decision or initiative should be whether it addresses the circumstances of those citizens who are the most vulnerable. 

My plan to advocate for rainwater catchment and storage, like curbside composting a worthy initiative, swirled down the drain – though it went on to garner 60 votes, coming in behind another health and safety-related idea, “Lowest Possible Police Priority: Enforcing Anti-Marijuana Laws” with 72. (Affordable housing ranked fifth across all categories.)

At one table, a city resident who was worried about becoming homeless asked Community Development Authority (CDA) Executive Director Natalie Erdman why the city closed the waiting list for the Section 8 voucher program, which covers housing costs beyond 30 to 40 percent of the eligible citizen’s income.  Erdman said the waiting list was closed in 2007, because it was so long that those on it would be waiting for years. She said it may open again soon, though.  This resident was not the only individual participating who’d been affected by the lack of affordable housing. Homeless people and formerly homeless people joined advocates and non-profit service providers in highlighting IdeaScale submissions related to affordable housing and homelessness.    The idea for a 365-day comprehensive shelter was added to the site after the first budget conversation on May 9, when homeless people raised the issue even though it did not quite fit with the theme that night of “Work/Invent & Create.”   Strong advocacy for shelter for families came from the table of participants that included Meg Miller, known in the community for her work directing The Respite Center, which is currently one of the programs under the umbrella of the Center for Families, and provides emergency 24-hour childcare, seven days per week.   Sina Davis emphasized the importance of a grocery store accessible to the Allied Drive neighborhood, and it was noted that this was the real purpose of tax incremental financing (TIF): to provide for community needs that can’t be addressed through other channels.

A week earlier at Packers Townhouses, the themes were “Get Around” and “Build Opportunity for All.”   No one who has ever waited for a Greyhound bus by the Oscar Meyer Parking lot at the North Transfer Point will be wondering why those voting on line affirmed the idea of an accessible transportation hub, the second most popular idea.  While half of the participants discussed transit themes, including bus passes for homeless individuals, the second group prioritized affordable childcare, affordable afterschool care, partnerships with schools and early childhood education.  The diverse group of participants included Packers Townhouses staff, PD members, homeless individuals, and Urban League staff members, as well as District 16 Alder Denise DeMarb. YWCA Racial Justice and Outreach Director Colleen Butler added Equity Impact Review into the conversation, and although this idea was a small vote-getter on line, participants saw it as important vehicle for evaluating budget decisions, and spent considerable time discussing it.  

King County, Washington (Seattle area) uses an “Equity Impact Review Tool” to assess the impact on equity – positive or negative - of policies or programs. “ If a decision is determined to have an impact on equity (Stage 1 in a three-stage process), assessment proceeds by identifying affected populations (Stage 2) and then developing “a list of likely impacts and actions to ensure that negative impacts are mitigated and positive impacts are enhanced.”   County Executive Dow Constantine’s website highlights commitment to equity:

We recognize that our economy and quality of life depends on the ability of everyone to contribute. We will work to remove barriers that limit the ability of some to fulfill their potential. It is troubling that race, income, neighborhood are each major predictors of whether we graduate from high school, become incarcerated, how healthy we are, and even how long we will live. We are committed to implementing our equity and social justice agenda, to work toward fairness and opportunity for all.

City residents’ concern with equity was also apparent at the last budget discussion, at Villager Mall on May 29.    Participants supported the mayor’s interest in matching SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “food stamp”) dollars with resources citizens could use at farmers’ markets, expressed concern about equitable access to parks, and were pleased to hear Public Library Director Greg Mickells talk about the new central library, slated open on September 21, as a place where everyone is welcome, the homeless included.  Mickells said he is exploring ways to facilitate communication between service providers and people using the library who need services. 

The same night at Monona Terrace, however, the Judge Doyle Square Committee heard presentations from prospective developers who want to build the new downtown hotel at the site of the Municipal Building.  Bob Dunn of Hammes Company, the Edgewater developer, explained how his company’s partnership with a California-based realty company would create not just a hotel, but a “destination anchor” for the city – in part by turning the Municipal Building into a food court and hotel.    It was clear from the presentation that the destination anchor was not for people who are already here, but for “new visits.”   Hammes is one of two developers still under consideration by the city.   The sum of possible public subsidies for a hotel (or “destination anchor”) at Judge Doyle Square is $58 million, as reported in Isthmus on May 31.

City staff attending the budget conversations seemed open to new ideas and engaged in meaningful discussions with residents, suggesting hope for local democracy. 

But this mind-boggling figure suggests that the overarching priorities of the city are out of sync with citizens’ concerns and community needs.    Considering that about 13 percent of the coming year’s budget is already ear-marked for debt service, public money for the Judge Doyle Square hotel is indefensible.   In fact, that would be true of any capital project that did not address basic needs.

One wonders what would happen if projects such as Judge Doyle Square and decisions to demolish affordable housing and replace it with new market-rate residences were subject to equity impact review, as are all budget decisions in King County.

Want to write a letter to the newsletter in response or an alternative perspective on Judge Doyle Square and city priorities?  Think we need conversations about priorities on the neighborhood level? Want to participate in policy discussions and strategy sessions or stay up to date on ways to advocate for PD priorities and platform in the city budget process? Contact skpastor@sbcglobal.net.

Susan Pastor is the Co-Chair of Progressive Dane's Policy Committee.

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Interested in the City's Budget Discussions? Check out this month's Newsletter Sneak Peak: Citizens' Budget Concerns