As Mayor Paul Soglin prepares budget proposals for 2018, City Council members are voicing priorities of public safety, racial equity and opportunity with initiatives including doubling the Affordable Housing Fund to $9 million and creating an Office of Violence Prevention.
Alds. Maurice Cheeks, Matthew Phair, Sara Eskrich and Mark Clear appeared at a press conference Monday to outline those priorities, offer possible actions and announce a series of public listening sessions, with the first two set for Sept. 6 and 9.
“These are the sorts of issues we’re going to be fighting for,” Cheeks said, stressing that the priorities are based on constituent concerns, apprehensions and demands amid divisiveness and uncertainty at the state and national levels. “Our constituents need local government to work.”
The council members did not criticize the mayor.
Soglin offered a cool response, suggesting Cheeks was offering proposals to boost a potential mayoral bid in 2019 and that Cheeks and the others are trying to steal thunder from the mayor’s formal budget proposals next week and in early October.
“My budget will be out over the next months,” Soglin said. “I’m really not going to engage Maurice Cheeks’ mayoral campaign at this juncture. He’s at a disadvantage because the mayor presents the budget. This is their effort to try and maneuver the politics of the situation.”
The priorities and possible initiatives outlined by the council members include:
The council has already supported the city application for a federal Department of Justice grant to help fund 15 more police officers. If the grant isn’t received, the council members will work with the Police Department to “reasonably invest” in supporting efforts to address gun violence.
The request could be for more detectives and additional officers for the violent crime unit, Phair said.
Other moves include a new Office of Violence Prevention in the Department of Public Health, which would likely require two employees, either through re- allocation of existing staff or new hires. Also, the city should work with Dane County and others to explore a Restoration Center, which would be an alternative for individuals who otherwise would be arrested or taken to the hospital because of behavior, intoxication and/or mental health problems.
The latter effort, based on a facility in San Antonio, could be funded by local governments, Medicaid, health insurers, private sponsors and other sources, Phair said.
Soglin said the council itself has made it harder to pursue safety initiatives. “They come along with all these concepts to spend money on safety after they have loaded the capital budget with police stations and highways, so it’s going to be very challenging to develop new initiatives,” he said.
Housing costs have reached crisis levels, the alders said in proposing to double capital investments for quality affordable housing from $4.5 million annually to $9 million.
The council members also want to ensure funding for Dane County’s new homeless day resource center; funds to allow paid family leave for city employees; and to bring agencies together while creating community gathering spaces, such as at the Meadowridge library, neighborhood center and commons on the Southwest Side.
Soglin noted that he proposed the affordable housing program, which relies heavily on money from tax-increment financing district closures and federal tax credits, but that the program has limits due to staff capacity and the future of tax credits under the Trump administration.
The mayor said the city can’t write “a blank check” for the day resource center and he has questions about how the county has managed future operating costs. He said he supports bringing agencies together and has worked for months on a library-community center at Reindahl Park.
The city is already looking to boost the minimum wage for its employees to $15 an hour, and has to look at costs of paid family leave and the city’s capacity to pay for it, he said.
To ensure economic opportunity, the council members want to prioritize youth mentoring; train people with skills for the new economy; improve access to affordable public transportation; and focus investments on small businesses and entrepreneurs, with an emphasis on women-owned and minority-owned businesses.
“We’ve got to make sure this is at the forefront of our discussions,” Phair said of the priorities.
Earlier this year, Soglin set a goal of a 2 percent increase in city taxes on the average home for 2018. He asked managers for spending proposals with no increases from the $300.3 million 2017 budget, except for full funding of previously approved items, and no supplemental requests.
He also said no new projects — except community-based ones like libraries and neighborhood centers — should be added to the 2018 capital budget or nonbinding, five-year Capital Improvement Plan.
The council will make final budget decisions in early November.