Eight ideas for a snowy day

Posted January 26th, 2014 @ 8:06 PM by

Apropos of nothing, here are a couple of ideas that could make life better for the less well-off in Madison. It is by no means exhaustive, nor is it meant to be a list that solves all problems. Not everyone is going to like all of them, so it’s worth reminding folks that Brenda is not the only person who blogs here, so don’t go blaming her for these.

1. Cancel the Garver Feed Mill stabilization project. The 2014 Capital Budget includes $1.825M to just keep part of the building standing, but its only projected use is as a storage shed for some snowplows. With our list of needs, that’s too much money for too little use.

So, take it off the landmarks list, and either spend nothing and just let nature reclaim it, or spend the minimal amount possible on demolition and get it over with and use the rest of the money for affordable housing. (The $1.825M figure was originally from demolition costs, with a reprieve given as “we’ll spend $1.825M demolishing Garver or as cost-sharing of a rehab”, but none of the Alders I asked could say if it we could do the demolition cheaper for $1.825M or not)

Garver is an example of throwing good money after bad. Could we build something great? Yeah, probably, but if we keep going down this path, sooner or later we’re going to be spending 10s of millions of public dollars to repurpose Garver. If we’re going to spend that much money it should be somewhere that’s a civic priority – East Washington or Park Street or the Southwest Side.

2. Cancel the undergrounding of utilities on East Johnson Street, and save $2.5M. There was already $1M in the 2014 budget to underground utilities from Butler to Blair. An additional $1.5M was added to the budget plans for 2015 and 2016.

Look, I’m all for undergrounding utilities, and it’s especially ugly on East Johnson Street, but borrowing $2.5M to pay for it is not where I’d spend that money. To cover that debt, we’ll be paying something like $325,000 a year for the next 10 years. Surely there are better uses for $325,000 a year.

3. Only elect people to credit union boards who are committed to and have a plan for using the credit union to build credit and gain access to services. It’s well-known that it’s expensive to be poor, and part of that expense is from being underbanked or banked with terrible services and high fees for small accounts. We should have a goal of every adult in Dane County having access to quality banking services, and the credit unions should be a part of that. So, when the UW Credit Union or Summit Credit Union have their elections in April, reach out and ask the candidates what they will do to expand banking access to the underserved.

4. Madison could put a referendum on its ballot and exceed the state revenue caps.  If we’re not able to provide all of the services we think are necessary, we can make the case the community and see if they agree. As some data points, for about an extra $27/year, we could have fully funded all $2.5M  that came in as a request to the City’s “Emerging Opportunities” fund, which only had a budget of $200,000. (Though I don’t think all the requests were worth funding.)

To perhaps make it a little easier to sell at the ballot box, making it about a specific program might be a more effective strategy. For example, that $2.5M/$27 a year in extra taxes on an average home would fund 25 public health nurses. A ballot question of “Should Madison exceed its revenue limits by $27 on the average house to put an extra public health nurse in the 25 poorest section of Madison” would pass in this town.

Raising property taxes is not ideal because they’re more regressive than anyone would like, but they’re the lever that we control now.

5. Lobby to equalize state aid. This one is more aspirational, as it doesn’t directly accomplish anything unless the legislature acts. It’s also something that Paul Soglin is quick to point out: if shared revenue for the City of Madison ($12.6M, or about $51/person) was funded just at the same level as shared revenue to the City of Milwaukee ($51.2M, or $85/person), our budget in Madison would not be cuts just to get to cost to continue of basic programs. Shared revenue is also more progressive, and isn’t as painful as the property tax for people living on fixed incomes.

This isn’t a call to slash aid to Milwaukee – Lord knows they need the money – it’s just a recognition that the way to reduce property taxes is to increase shared revenue payments.

6. Push pardons and expungement, and make them the norm. In this age of easy background checks and a tough on crime attitude, it’s gotten too hard on people with a record to reintegrate back into society. Again, this is aspirational as it’s not something the Madison Common Council or the Dane County Board can change.

On the whole, we would be better off if people who have not committed a crime after a sufficient period are given a clean background and were allowed to say “No” to “Have you ever been convicted of a crime”. Clearly you don’t want to grant this to everyone for every crime or every person, but the world could use some more forgiveness.

Things that we can do, besides lobbying and pushing the Dane County delegation to introduce legislation to bring this about, is to provide some assistance to Madison and Dane County residents to be sure that they’ve applied for anything and everything they’re eligible to apply for.

7. Require all background checks be reported. Related to criminal records, we should require every background check performed be reported to the Madison Division of Civil Rights, regardless if the person is hired or not. Make this reporting easy for businesses: don’t charge a fee to do it, and collect minimal information – probably just the name and social security number of everyone a business performed a background check on, and a hired/not-hired indicator. Make it available as a form that can be mailed in once a month, or a secure website that lets a business upload a spreadsheet every so often.

Having good data on the how background checks might affect hiring would be helpful in the large and to look at outcomes at specific employers, and the sheer fact that businesses know the data is being reported may reduce some discrimination.

8. Madison should buy some motels. There are a number of older motels around Madison, some of which are poorly managed or otherwise problems for their neighborhoods. Madison should use some landbanking funds and buy them. For the interim, we can use them for emergency shelters. Long-term, many of them are in blighted but prime locations for future redevelopment, often along transit corridors, and so land-banking them is appropriate.

Categories: | Dane | Homelessness | Madison | Media | Poor and Living in Madison

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