By the time the City of Fitchburg Common Council got through its first round of votes on budget amendment proposals Nov. 13, it was $213,856 over the state-mandated limit.
Minutes later, alders reconsidered some of the amendments they had approved earlier and decided to cut funding to replace a public works tractor, leave vacant a division fire chief position that’s been requested for four years and delay a third Fitch-Rona EMS ambulance by two months, to August.
Those cuts allowed alders to get $6,000 below the levy limit and approve a 2019 budget that will cut taxes by $2 on an average home in the city, which is assessed at $294,000 in the budget, up from $282,000 this year. The tax rate is $8.19 per $1,000 of property value, a 4 percent drop from last year’s $8.55.
It also allowed alders to fund the paving of Whalen Road and adding shoulders, which many said would be a major safety boost on a road that has heavy biking traffic, including the annual Ironman Wisconsin race.
Two alders ended up unhappy with the process, which alders approved had before discussing any amendments at the meeting. As a result, both Dorothy Krause (Dist. 1) and Julia Arata-Fratta (D-2) abstained from the final vote on the budget.
At one point, as alders voted to remove the addition of the fire division chief position they had approved earlier in the meeting, Arata-Fratta quietly said, “holy macaroni.”
“I am disappointed how some of the items were approved,” Arata-Fratta said later, during closing statements. “I don’t feel comfortable approving this budget, because I disagree with so many things that were done.”
She and others were concerned about some of the “structural deficits” that were built into the final budget, most notably delaying the third ambulance crew from a June start to August. A structural deficit generally refers to funding something that will cost more in a future year, usually because it starts mid year.
While holding off on the third ambulance and it's crew saved more than $50,000 for 2019 and helped allow room for the Whalen paving, the crew will have to be funded for an entire year in 2020, costing three times as much.
Ald. Dan Bahr (D-2) noted that the $320,000 for the pair of Whalen paving projects is one-time spending, and that could help fill that funding gap next year.
“The infrastructure work is one-time payment,” he said. “The money is freed up the following year.”
Arata-Fratta was not persuaded it should have been a priority.
“It’s a rural area used mostly by bikers,” she said. “We have plenty of bike paths they can use for next year.”
That was in contrast to testimony during the public hearing at the beginning of the meeting, which had four people testify about the need for the paving.
“Whether shoulders are put on that road or not, there will be bicyclists on it,” said Darren Blakenship, the chair of the city’s Transportation and Transit Committee. “It’ll just make it a lot safer if there are shoulders available.”
There were also two who spoke in favor of the fire division chief position, which would focus on inspections. The position went vacant four years ago when the person in it had to take a medical leave, they said, and its work has been taken care of largely by paid-on-call staff since.
“If you pass this amendment (to cut the position) … basically you’re leaving us with no option other than to fail,” said Richard Roth. “I’m telling you, it’s on the verge of breaking.”
Later in the meeting, alders encouraged the department to look for efficiencies elsewhere, and some pointed out the department had received new staffing in recent years at the expense of others and said now it was time to add staff elsewhere.
“I do believe that we could look within and find efficiencies,” Bahr said. “We’ve got to prioritize. Sometimes you just can’t throw money at everything.”
Many of the cuts were proposed with the intent to add in the Whalen Road paving, Bahr acknowledged. That included cutting $101,000 of money set aside to plan for the Town of Madison annexation that will be in 2022 at the latest. Ald. Tony Hartmann (D-4) said that was unnecessary because, “We have no idea how much money we’re going to need,” and it’s likely to be in the millions, whatever the exact figure is.
“This is like saving your allowance to buy a new car when you get 35 cents a week,” Hartmann said.
Delaying the ambulance staffing costs to August still allows Fitch-Rona EMS chief Patrick Anderson to begin the hiring process next year with the funds accounted for. When two amendments were proposed to delay the staffing until January 2020, Anderson had expressed concern about starting a mid-year hiring process without having the funds guaranteed, since municipal budgets wouldn’t be finalized yet.
“I don’t have the money approved to hire until the middle of November,” Anderson told the Council at its Oct. 25 Committee of the Whole discussion. “I can’t do it in six weeks.”
The alders voting on the budget who spoke during closing statements said they were happy to be lowering taxes, and they acknowledged some of the decisions they had to make were tough.
“It’s never easy when you put out a budget,” said Ald. Tom Clauder (D-4). “You can wish a lot, but it also comes with a price tag.”