Agencies’ response to Soglin’s budget request would cut deeply

2011-08-23T09:00:00Z 2011-10-04T10:28:08Z Agencies’ response to Soglin’s budget request would cut deeplyDEAN MOSIMAN | dmosiman@madison.com | 608-252-6141 madison.com

Laying off 38 cops and 27 firefighters. Reducing salt and sand on snow-covered streets. Eliminating the school crossing guard program. Reducing lifeguards at beaches and closing some city skating rinks.

Mayor Paul Soglin last month asked agencies to propose 5 percent cuts to help close a budget shortfall now projected at roughly $15.2 million — the result of $5.6 million in state aid cuts and increased costs in areas such as employee health insurance, fuel and borrowing.

Soglin is now reviewing budgets submitted by agencies late last week. Labor costs are the bulk of city spending, which is $248.2 million in 2011.

The mayor has said he would support a property tax increase no greater than 3 percent, which would produce $5.9 million in new revenue, leaving the remaining $9.3 million shortfall to be covered by cuts, efficiencies or other revenues.

"Every service we rely on is vulnerable," the mayor said. "My goal is to come up with the best solution possible based on the values and priorities of the people of Madison. It is going to be painful. It is going to hurt. It is going to result in cuts in service, which are going to have negative long-term consequences for our city."

Specific cuts, however, are far from clear. Soglin will propose an operating budget to the City Council on Oct. 4. The council will decide the operating and capital budgets the week of Nov. 15.

Agency responses to the mayor's request for 5 percent cuts would reduce police service and eliminate the school crossing guard program, mothball a fire engine and ambulance, put one-third less salt on snow-covered streets, cut lifeguards at six neighborhood beaches and close three skating rinks, reduce bus service and more for a total savings of $11.9 million, city Finance Director David Schmiedicke said.

The agency responses include at least 70 layoffs, Schmiedicke said.

If the mayor holds his line on taxes and fees, many — although not all — of the cuts would be needed to balance the budget.

Soglin said the full array of cuts is "not acceptable."

Agency managers said they appreciate the severity of the city's budget challenge but stressed that deep cuts would have real impacts. 

For police, the full 5 percent, or $2.8 million, cut would be akin to eliminating one of the city's smaller police districts, Chief Noble Wray said.

With such a cut, it would be hard to maintain all or parts of the city's neighborhood officer, gang and traffic units or other special initiatives, Wray said.

"Is that what citizens are looking for?" he said.

Fire Chief Debra Amesqua said the full cut would increase response times and diminish coverage. "When you're looking at that amount of money, you can't make it up in bricks and mortar tables and chairs. You have to lay off people," she said.

Streets Superintendent Al Schumacher said the full cut would mean changes like slower snow removal and leaf pickup.

Soglin said he wants to hold the line on property taxes and fees after increases beyond the level of inflation for a number of years and because thousands of public workers who live in Madison are facing increased payments for health insurance and pensions. But council President Lauren Cnare said some members may be willing to consider a tax increase higher than what the mayor would support.

A 3 percent increase on the average Madison home, which is worth $239,239, would raise that taxpayer's city tax bill by $61 to $2,069.

The city could raise taxes about $2.6 million beyond Soglin's line and still be under the state cap, Schmiedicke said.

Several agencies also offered suggestions for savings or new revenues. The police identified $500,000 in savings through its towing contract and other areas, while Streets, the Engineering Department and a labor union have proposed sharing four employees during peak and off seasons. Streets also suggested several new fees.

"The mayor cannot solve this alone," Wray said, adding that Soglin needs help from managers, labor, City Council members and the public. "Madison can meet this challenge."

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