Give ‘Em a Raise

This week the Madison City Council will take up a budget amendment to give themselves a raise. They should nudge their pay up a bit, but not as much as proposed.

The proposal before the council would more than double their pay from about $15,000 a year to around $32,000. That’s too much for this part time job, but something, say around $20,000, would be more like it.

On average, alders say they put in around 20 hours a week. Around this time of year, budget time, it’s more. They not only have to attend the Council meetings, but they all serve on at least a couple of committees, there’s prep time for those meetings, and then there are neighborhood association meetings and calls and emails from constituents about everything under the sun. It’s a lot of work and a lot of responsibility.

Nobody on the Council does it for the money and few alders are looking to move on to other offices. It really is civically minded volunteerism. Even when I disagree with them, I also respect these folks for stepping up and doing the job on our behalf. A move to make the Council smaller (there are currently 20 seats) and to provide full-time salaries was crushed by the voters recently in a referendum. That’s good because these were horrible ideas.

But simply more fairly compensating these civic volunteers for the time and effort they put in on our behalf is the right thing to do. I don’t know what the right number should be. But $15,000 is too little and $32,000 is too much.

On another city budget matter, there’s an amendment to provide another $6 million for the stalled public market. That project ran into a roadblock when new construction estimates and the need to back out of a Federal grant application left it about $5.2 million in the hole. Dane County has stepped in with a $1.5 million commitment and the city’s additional $6 million would cover the $5.2 million plus anticipated increased costs due to ongoing inflation in construction.

In the wrong place with the wrong mission.

The amendment will likely pass because of the county contribution, because the $6 million would come from a flush TIF district and because there is just a lot of momentum and organization behind the project.

I think this is fine, but I lost enthusiasm for the market when its mission got muddled. When I started this effort as mayor back in 2006 (yeah, 16 years is just about the right gestation period for a Madison building project) I thought of it as the kind of urban amenity that a city our size should add in order to keep up in the competition for talent that would grow our economy. It would be appealing to middle class folks, also known as taxpayers. Also, we had two consultant’s studies telling us that it had to be located downtown to take advantage of foot traffic.

But when I left office, Mayor Soglin decided it needed to be somewhere else and it needed to have something to do with “equity.” Now the location is odd and the mission is weird. It will be built (assuming the amendment passes) at the old fleet services site on First Street, not even walking distance from the Square.

Just as important the project now seems focussed on something it is is ill-suited to accomplish. Public markets are fundamentally amenities enjoyed by middle and upper income citizens. Nothing wrong with that, but they are not designed to deal effectively with issues of social justice. If the idea is to help get high-quality, healthy foods into low-income households, this is an expensive and inefficient delivery mechanism for that. If the idea is to promote minority-owned businesses there are much better ways to accomplish that — see the big new project for Black business development on the South Side.

Nonetheless, the market has taken on a life of its own with its own infrastructure and advocates. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has taken a hands off approach, saying she’ll go along with whatever the Council decides. So, we’re likely to get a very expensive public market in a location that is less than ideal with a mission that really doesn’t make a lot of sense. But at the end of the day, I suppose it will end up being a middling success.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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