The Wrong Building

Dane County and the City of Madison passed their 2023 budgets this week. The net result is that local government is moving ahead with one flawed and unnecessary building project while it continues to dither about a necessary one.

Last night the Madison City Council did what I expected they’d do. To make up for ever-higher construction costs, they added still more money for the Public Market, another $4.5 million on top of an additional $1.5 million approved by Dane County. The market was a good idea when it was proposed for downtown back in 2006, but since then the project has lost its way. It was relocated, for some reason nobody can explain, a couple miles east of the Square, where consultants said it needed to be to benefit from foot traffic. And its mission was converted to something incomprehensible about social justice. I’m all for social justice, but if that’s what your policy goal is, then a public market is a really expensive and really inefficient delivery mechanism for it.

And as outgoing Council President Keith Furman pointed out, it feels likely that an ongoing public operating subsidy will wind up being necessary. That’s not supposed to be the case, but if the bad location and the muddled mission make for a less than successful business model, how will future Councils be able to resist subsidizing a project dispensing all of that social justice? These things develop their own constituencies with groups and individuals whose jobs, profits or sense of influence depend on them. Furman and two other Council members bravely (well, Furman isn’t running again, so maybe it wasn’t so brave, just honest) voted against this, but frankly, I was surprised that there were that many. It passed 17-3.

Bringing healthy food options to low-income families is a great community goal. A Public Market is a poor way to accomplish it. Photo by Dana Tentis on

Not moving forward is the Dane County jail consolidation, a project that really is needed. When this was first proposed several years ago the idea was to shut down the antiquated and inhumane old jail on the top floors of the City County Building and the worn Huber facility in the Alliant Energy Center parking lot. A new tower was to be built alongside the existing Public Safety Building with modern accommodations for prisoners and facilities for programing and family visits.

What’s not to like? Ideology and costs. The ideological objection came from the hard-left. They don’t like jails. They don’t think there are any dangerous criminals out there, just political prisoners. They wanted either no jail or a much smaller one to force the system to lock up fewer people. You would think they would have been satisfied then with the original consolidation proposal which cut the number of total beds. If you thought that, you don’t know the hard-left.

The County Board did approve the first plan, for 925 beds or 9% less than the current total capacity, over the objections of the radicals, but then they encountered the second problem: skyrocketing costs. A further slimmed down version, now cutting total beds even more to 825, was passed, but then even that plan needed more money. So, as part of the 2023 budget, the Board ended up narrowly approving a still smaller plan that would produce around 697 beds — about a 30% reduction from current capacity for a county that is the most rapidly growing in the state.

County Executive Joe Parisi and Sheriff Kalvin Barrett don’t think the 697 bed facility will be big enough and will lead to over-crowding. So, Parisi did the right thing and vetoed it yesterday. This allows planning to move ahead on the six story, 825 bed facility, but there still isn’t enough money to actually build it.

The problem is that virtually anything requires a three-quarters vote under Board rules. While there is a majority for various proposals, none of them can get to the super majority needed. Supervisor Analiese Eicher has offered the most sensible plan. She would finance the added money needed for the six story facility by cutting county spending on other projects. Not only is that fiscally responsible, but it’s clever because it would only require a simple majority vote.

Eicher’s plan was voted down as part of the Board’s budget process, but it may resurface since it seems like the only sensible way out. Meanwhile, nothing’s getting any cheaper.

What links these two projects is this community’s obsession over boutique and bizarre theories on race. The Public Market is a poor deployment of scarce resources to deal with real problems of racism. The problem is that the idea developed over a decade and a half in which every project had to have some social justice justification. And so, a square peg got hammered into a round hole. If we had started from scratch with the goal of social justice, a Public Market would not have even been on the table.

The jail, under any iteration, will reduce capacity substantially. That will, in fact, force the system to ask itself who really needs to be locked up, which is a good thing. But if you build it too small that will result in overcrowding, and how is that humane? Moreover, once built (if ever) we’d be shutting down bad facilities and replacing them with facilities that provide better, safer housing and space for more services. Also, never mind that the Sheriff, who supports a larger facility, is a Black man.

So, here’s the upshot. We could have forgone the Public Market and invested those resources in projects like neighborhood community kitchens that brought healthy local foods and cooking lessons to food deserts and done it at a fraction of the cost. We could have moved ahead on a jail consolidation by now that would have shuttered awful facilities and provided more services to inmates while putting pressure on the system to incarcerate fewer people.

In both cases, sensible, moderate, center-left solutions would have provided progressive outcomes. Who’s in the way? Progressives.

And on another matter… the Council upped its pay from about $15,000 a year to about $20,000, down from an earlier proposal to bump it all the way up to $32,000. Here at YSDA we had suggested that a reasonable salary for this part-time, yet demanding, job would be… around $20,000. Mere coincidence? Yep, almost certainly. To our knowledge nobody on the Council reads this thing.


Published by dave cieslewicz

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

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