If nothing else, Mayor Paul Soglin is clear about his big priorities: city finances, poverty and equity.

Since taking office, Soglin has scrutinized fiscal practices, warned against using one-time revenues and creating long-term costs in the operating budget, and railed about too much borrowing and the rising cost of debt payments.

Soglin quickly revived neighborhood resource teams and initiated or supported efforts on out-of-school time and youth training and internships, jobs and moves to weave equity into the fabric of city government and city life. In his last budget, he unveiled ambitious initiatives to create 1,000 housing units for the homeless and those with lower incomes, and build neighborhood centers.

“We had some very serious problems that were not being addressed,” he said.

As Soglin emerges from a November dust-up with the City Council over the final budget of his four-year term and the city pivots to the spring elections, he’ll be judged on whether he’s had the right focus and accomplishments. And, for some, how he’s gone about pursuing them.

The mayor and council largely agree on big priorities, and there are many other important issues, council President Chris Schmidt said. But some of Soglin’s high-profile pursuits, like his recent initiative to shelter retail businesses so State Street doesn’t turn into a strip of “megasaloons,” are less important, he said.

Soglin can also create strains with how he does things, Schmidt said. “A lot of times, he can be his own worst enemy,” he said.

Leslie Ann Howard, president of the United Way of Dane County, said Soglin has “absolutely” identified the right priorities.

“Paul has put a stake in the ground on these most important issues,” she said. “You can say something and do a little program, but I think Paul’s interested in moving on scale, trying to get deep, to see if we can move the needle on a community scale.”

Michael Johnson, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, and Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, are fine with the priorities, but Johnson wonders if they get needed resources and Brandon wants more vision.

“The question is, where are we going?” Brandon said.

Under Soglin, the city has maintained basic services and avoided layoffs while tax collections rose at a lower average rate than the average between 2001 and 2011. The city quit using a cash premium it gets from lenders to indirectly support the operating budget. And the city’s rainy-day fund has been at historically high levels. The mayor has had mixed success in curbing borrowing and taming debt payments.

Soglin’s progress on poverty and equity are harder to quantify as initiatives, some in the last 18 months and even this fall, may be taking root or not.

“There have been successes,” said Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, the council’s longest-serving member. “I do give him higher marks for effort than execution or short-term results.”

Fiscal scrutiny

The mayor has consistently challenged city finances, ruffling feathers as he took office and last month, when he threatened a veto of the 2015 budget.

Right away, Soglin briefly paused bidding for the $29.5 million reconstruction of the Central Library to get guarantees on outside funding. He redid a contract with Trek Bicycle Corp. to save $300,000 on the B-cycle program, now a city fixture. He twice tried to dramatically shave Overture Center funding, but he upped his proposals and there was no dispute in the final two budgets, the latter delivering $1.75 million. He renegotiated labor contracts.

Three of Soglin’s four budgets — the exception in 2014 — were contentious or passed by the council under threat of veto. Last month, concerned about council changes, he threatened a veto and let the budget pass without his signature.

The mayor challenged use of the cash premium from lenders — money given in exchange for higher interest rates on loans — to indirectly support the operating budget, and weaned the city from it. From 2005 to 2011, the city used an average $2.6 million annually in premiums for the operating budget. In Soglin’s first budget, in 2012, the city used $4.2 million, but the sum declined to $165,000 in 2013 and fell to zero for 2014 and 2015.

Under Soglin, authorized borrowing dropped sharply from $140.4 million to $94.6 million in his first budget. But it has crept back up in following years to the whopping $147.9 million recently approved for 2015. Actual borrowing has declined three straight years, in part because projects were cheaper, delayed or set aside.

The percentage of general fund spending going to debt payments, which can rise even if actual borrowing drops for a few years because the city repays debt over 10 years, has now bumped above the city’s guideline of 12.5 percent to more than 14 percent. But that’s partly due to the fact that city spending slowed due to the recession and state-mandated levy limits.

This fall, Soglin proposed some huge spending initiatives related to his priorities, including a $24.2 million affordable housing plan and $38.3 million for neighborhood centers, both through 2020, and $10.6 million for a public market over three years.

The ensuing fight wasn’t about Soglin’s proposals but what the council added, including three more neighborhood resource officers, moving up construction of a Midtown Police District station to 2015 and a fire station on the far Southeast Side to 2017. The council didn’t budge.

Ald. David Ahrens, 15th District, a budget hawk, called Soglin’s proposal “a package of something-for-everybody made worse by the council, which sought to do it all the next year or two.”

Soglin and council members vowed to address long-term fiscal challenges, especially capital spending, early next year. “He’s been very effective at getting everybody on the same page on some of this stuff,” Schmidt said.

Poverty, equity focus

As he challenged finances, Soglin put voice to poverty and equity.

The challenge is undeniable.

The homeless sleep nightly on the steps of city hall. Census estimates for 2008-12 show Madison’s poverty rate at 18.5 percent — 15.6 percent for whites, 38.4 percent for blacks, 27.3 percent for Asians and 21.7 percent for Latinos. Almost half of students in city schools live in poverty and a large achievement gap exists between whites and blacks. The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ “Race to Equity” report in October 2013 showed blacks fare far worse than whites in nearly every indicator of well-being for Dane County residents.

Soglin said he initially relied on proven successes — neighborhood resource teams and neighborhood centers — combined with efforts to grow the city’s tax base.

The resource teams, bringing a cross section of city staff to targeted areas, did work that led to budget proposals for neighborhood centers and bus service to the isolated Owl Creek neighborhood on the Southeast Side, he said.

The mayor started or backed actions — as did staff and the council — including an initiative to make equity a core principle in all city decisions, policies and functions. The city has reformed hiring practices, added youth internships, and launched efforts on out-of-school time, boosting minority and women contractors, construction employment, the digital divide and food. The city is supporting a new United Way program on reducing poverty, and this fall Soglin accepted President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge” focused on challenges faced by boys and young men of color.

Under Soglin, the city adopted a “housing first” policy for the homeless and is poised to build a $7.5 million project using multiple funding sources on the East Side that will create 60 units of permanent supportive housing for single homeless adults, and planning a second phase for families for another site. The new Affordable Housing Fund envisions 1,000 units for the homeless and lower-income people by 2020. The council just approved the first use of the new fund to bolster three projects that will add 200 units of lower-cost housing.

Critics say Soglin has made some missteps, especially on homelessness, and that his 2015 initiatives are late and politically motivated.

Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight, which provides emergency shelter and more to the homeless, called the housing initiative “very creative and commendable,” with the challenge to make sure there’s funding for operations to serve residents. The frustration, he said, is a lack of coordinated strategy between the city and county on the issue.

Former Ald. Brenda Konkel, an outspoken advocate for the homeless, said Soglin has erred, like his proposal in late 2012 to provide bus passes to send the homeless out of town. But the city hired a housing specialist who produced a detailed report with recommendations including many of the recent initiatives, she said, adding, “Things are actually happening.”

Soglin sought and the council approved $8.3 million next year for as many as two new neighborhood centers, with more than half of the money coming from private sources. The six-year plan calls for $38.3 million in spending, including outside money, on such centers.

Building more neighborhood centers is a positive, but they must be funded, and not at the expense of existing operations, Johnson said.

While he didn’t campaign on it, Soglin has put a major focus on food policy, which he believes fits his priorities. A big piece, the public market envisioned for the East Side, is not a “glorified food court” but a place to combine activities that “offers one of the most exciting prospects for changing the economic health and opportunities for our citizens,” he said.

The mayor supported continuing negotiations with JDS Development on the massive Judge Doyle Square project south of Capital Square, but is now moving to follow the council’s directive to reopen the process to all developers. He said he’ll make a decision on supporting a project when the public costs and economic benefits are known.

Ahrens was critical. “I take a different tack on the issue of poverty,” he said. “We need an economic development strategy. If you follow the money, the money is going to a hotel (at Judge Doyle Square) and the tourism industry. It’s a strategy that’s not sustainable.”

So far, Ald. Scott Resnick, 8th District, former Ald. Bridget Maniaci, Brandon Barwick, Richard V. Brown Sr., and Christopher Daly have filed initial paperwork to challenge Soglin. Final papers are due Jan. 6.

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.