In a marathon meeting stretching into the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Madison Finance Committee voted in favor of a $40 vehicle registration fee and finalized Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s 2020 operating budget, omitting funding that would have added officers to the Madison police force.
Committee members voted on 25 budget amendments and the registration fee in a meeting beginning Monday afternoon and spanned just over eight hours.
The meeting featured a lengthy public comment period, with residents voicing their views on the proposals — audience members filled every seat and spilled into an overflow room across the hall.
Both the registration fee and the failed police funding were difficult decisions for the committee as alders’ wishes clashed with budgetary realities.
A wheel tax without fanfare
The vehicle registration fee, commonly called a wheel tax, would generate $7.9 million in new revenue for the city. The mayor’s operating budget assumed those funds in its calculations.
Without the fee, a balanced budget is a near impossibility, according to Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4.
A portion of the revenue would go towards laying the groundwork for the mayor’s Bus Rapid Transit plan. The rest would support Madison Metro operations and essential services like police, fire and public works.
The wheel tax would be the highest of its kind in the state and the first in Madison’s history. Including state-and county-level vehicle fees, city residents would pay $153 each year to register an automobile.
The fee’s approval came without fanfare. Some committee members openly lamented their votes, deeming the measure a necessary evil. Multiple alders noted substantial opposition to the measure from their constituents.
“None of us are enthusiastic whatsoever about it,” said Verveer, who voted in support of the fee. “We need to go home and shower after voting for it.”
Verveer, who represents the Capitol Square and adjacent downtown neighborhoods, tried to attach a sunset provision that would end the tax after two years. That motion failed after Rhodes-Conway argued it would be dishonest to residents.
“We are not going to be able to get rid of a vehicle registration fee in two years, because our costs are going to continue to go up and we are going to continue — I would expect — to see less revenue from the state,” the mayor said.
Alders were particularly frustrated because the proposed wheel tax is considered “regressive” — the fee is the same for all vehicles and residents. Alders worried that it would disproportionately hurt the city’s most economically vulnerable residents.
In an effort to alleviate that concern, the committee approved $100,000 in funding for a “gift card” program offsetting the fee for residents who receive support from the Women, Infants and Children public health program. Members agreed it was an incomplete fix that wouldn’t help all those who might struggle to pay the fee.
The Common Council will likely hold a special session in the next two weeks so the fee, if approved, can take effect by the desired date of Feb. 1, 2020. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which oversees vehicle registration fees, requires at least 90 days notice before fee takes effect.
No funds for new police officers
In another reluctant decision, members rejected funding to hire new police officers. Insufficient funds doomed the proposal despite widespread support on the committee.
In a June memo to the city finance director, now-retired MPD Chief Mike Koval, set a goal of adding 10 new police officers per year over a four-year period, citing a need for increased patrols.
“Many of us on the council have heard loud and clear from our constituents that they do believe that the police department needs additional officer positions,” Verveer said. “By all accounts, they’re very short-staffed.”
The amendment was the last of 25 considered by the committee and had three versions that respectively provided either three, six or 12 additional officers. By the time it came up for discussion, the committee did not have the remaining funds to support any of the three versions.
Ald. Verveer said after the meeting he would likely introduce an amendment at the Common Council to allocate all the remaining available funds to MPD, even though it is less than the amendments originally sought.
While MPD didn’t receive additional officers, earlier in the meeting the committee voted to keep $200,000 in funding for a full-time, independent police auditor position, which would provide independent, external oversight of investigations in the department.
The Common Council is scheduled to take up the 2020 capital and operating budgets on Nov.12.