Fitchburg's mayor has proposed a budget cutting all funding to nonprofits in the city, prompting an outcry from several community leaders who say the measure abandons the city’s most vulnerable.
They argue the budget represents poor priorities and leveled allegations of racism, but Mayor Jason Gonzalez said the budget is a result of financial realities.
Michael Johnson, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County (BGCDC), is rallying support on Facebook to return funding for programs offered by his organization to the budget.
“I am asking the Mayor of City of Fitchburg, to come to Allied Drive and King James Way and tell our kids why he is cutting funding to all non profits including a food pantry and spending $40,000 on bullets for the Fitchburg Police Department,” one post reads.
The mayor’s proposed $20 million 2018 budget for the city of Fitchburg, published last Friday, represents an increase of about 4 percent over the 2017 budget.
It cuts all funding to nonprofits, amounting to $125,000 total: $50,000 in funding to the BGCDC, $10,000 to the Badger Prairie Needs Network, a $50,000 community grant administered by the Community Economic Development Authority (CEDA), and $15,000 to the Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative.
The BGCDC money goes toward transporting and feeding kids at the organization's Allied Drive location. If lost, the BGCDC would probably have to cut back on some of their transportation routes to collect kids from different schools, potentially reduce hours of part-time staff and snacks for kids, Johnson said Monday.
On Facebook, Johnson has repeatedly pointed out other expenditures in the budget for what he considers less-worthy items — almost $40,000 in firearms and ammunition, $200,000 for computer repair and new computers.
Badger Prairie Needs Network is a nonprofit that offers a food pantry, cooking classes and community meals. Bob Kasieta, president of the organization's board, said he hadn’t heard about the cut, but if affected, the organization would have to “think long and hard about how to fill that gap.”
“A $10,000 cut in our budget ... would deprive a lot of our neediest neighbors of some services,” he said.
Wanda Smith, a community leader who ran for Fitchburg City Council this past spring, said she had planned on applying for the CEDA grant to help fund her after-school program. The program was previously housed in a fire station located on King James’ Way, but the city gave her two weeks to vacate in May, she said.
Smith is looking for a location for after-school programming, which she planned to start Oct. 1. Now she’s not sure where, how or when she will be able to start programming, she said.
“I feel so bad for my kids. Parents are inboxing me on Facebook, saying, ‘When is homework club starting?’ I’m like, oh my god, I have no clue,” she said. “We had a plan but now we don't have money.”
“I’m going to say exactly what it is. It’s a hate crime against people of color,” she said.
Johnson shared a similar sentiment.
“Here’s my issue,” Johnson said. “Everything that he cut impacts African-American and Latino kids.”
'IT'S NOT WHAT I WANT'
As a Latino who grew up on the south side of Madison in a single-parent home, Gonzalez said he denies the charges of racism. The city is in a tight financial situation and he prioritized city services, he said, adding that it was a choice between nonprofits and having “someone plow your road, put an ambulance in service, or have a police officer response.”
“It’s not what I want, this is driven on the numbers, the advice of staff and the consultation with my council,” Gonzalez said. “It has nothing to do with race.”
The majority of the budget went to wages, insurance, health insurance and debt services, Gonzalez said. He said the city was in an unfavorable position because his predecessor's budget did not qualify for an expenditure restraint program that gives $650,000 in state aid, staff had not received a cost of living increase for the past three years, and new construction was down significantly, he said.
“Given all the things I inherited, I had to make some executive decisions on what were the priorities of the city,” he said.
He said while BGCDC is a valuable organization, he has constituents who questioned the decision to levy taxes to fund nonprofits.
“We are not a community development grant city like city of Madison or Dane County. This is literally levy tax dollars,” he said, referring to federal dollars assigned by those other municipalities.
Gonzalez said he hasn’t made up his mind about what the 2019 budget will look like, but that Johnson’s social media response “doesn’t help his cause.”
This isn’t the first time Johnson has faced off with Fitchburg officials over the BGCDC budget.
Last year, several alders used a budget amendment to propose moving the BGCDC and Badger Prairie food pantry allocations to the CEDA fund. Supporters argued the move was meant to create a transparent process for granting money to nonprofits. Johnson believed it threatened future BGCDC funding.
Johnson gathered over 200 supporters who showed up at a City Council meeting, and the amendment failed.
Earlier this year, Johnson said, Gonzalez verbally committed to working with BGCDC. Gonzalez claims he said he would like to continue the partnership if the funding was available.
In an email from March that Johnson shared on Facebook, Gonzalez told Johnson he would like to continue to support the BGCDC, but wanted to change the model because it had been “politicized” in the past.
“You have my word that we will work as a partner with BGCDC in my administration,” the email reads.
When Gonzalez called Johnson on Friday to tell him that funding would be cut, Gonzalez claims Johnson said “something to the effect of ‘I’ll make sure you don’t re-elected.’” Gonzalez has not returned Johnson’s texts or calls since.
Now, Johnson is working to once again fight the budget. He filed an open records request with the city manager asking for further details about the budget process, including emails regarding the decision to cut BGCDC funding and the percentage of African-American employees working for the city.
He is also planning to gather supporters for an upcoming city meeting, the details of which will be announced later. He also plans to run television advertisements calling attention to “fluff” in the budget.
Gonzalez and Fitchburg Ald. Aaron Richardson offered reminders that this is not the finalized budget.
“We haven’t as a council discussed it or approved anything yet,” Richardson said.