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Mayor Soglin blasts council amendment to give Overture Center more money

Soglin uses a prop to demonstrate the effect of using a premium for city operating expenses.
Credit:Joe Tarr
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Mayor Paul Soglin is heaping harsh criticism on a proposal to amend his budget to provide $900,000 more for the Overture Center.

In a press conference Monday morning, Soglin denounced the amendment, supported by 14 Madison Common Council members, that would increase Overture's funding from $850,000 to $1,750,000. That amount is a $100,000 drop from this year's contribution. The amendment uses money from the so-called premium -- a bonus given by lenders up front, in exchange for securing a higher interest rate for the life of bonds.

The city can use the premium however it wants. Funding capital projects with it would mean it has to borrow less money. Using some of the premium toward the operating budget -- as the council proposes -- drives up borrowing costs down the line, a point that Soglin stressed in his press conference.

"I could very easily have found $1 million of borrowed money and put it into Overture," Soglin said. "It would avoid a great deal of criticism I've received. And it would certainly make the budget deliberations a lot easier. But I didn't ask to serve the city to do what was convenient, easy, sloppy and dangerous."

Soglin seems all but certain to veto the budget, even though there are enough sponsors of the amendment to override a veto. He said if the council feels that strongly about funding the arts center, it should find another way to do so.

"I am not prepared to cut city services by $1 million. If others are prepared to spend this money on Overture, they have the obligation, they have the responsibility to propose the cuts and say where it's coming from," he said. "They have no right…to bankrupt the city."

Although he's against using the $4.3 million premium toward the operating budget, Soglin oddly enough set aside $500,000 of it for the council to use as it contemplated budget amendments. Asked why he did this, Soglin said: "I wanted to see what would happen. I wanted to see if they'd use it to apply to the capital budget, to lower property taxes."

Ald. Mark Clear said that's typical of the mayor's attitude toward the council.

"That is symptomatic of the mayor's paternalistic disrespect of the council, to say it was a test to see if we could restrain ourselves," Clear said in an interview after the news conference. "The mayor likes to portray himself as the only adult in the room and I think that's disrespectful to the role of the council."

Clear disagrees that taking advantage of the premium creates a structural deficit by using one-time money for a recurring expense. "Every year it's the toughest budget ever," he says. "And every year there are lots of variables the city can't control."

For instance, he says, next year the state will have passed a new budget and it's anybody's guess how Madison will fare with it. "That creates a structural deficit, because we have no idea what the state aid will be," he says. "We have to play with the cards we're dealt."

The mayor threatened to veto last year's budget in part because of funding for Overture. But alders instead passed some hasty amendments during an all-night council meeting to avoid that scenario. The mayor has five days after passage of the budget to veto or sign the measure. The council would likely call a special meeting after a veto, says Clear. The city has to send out tax bills by the third Monday in December so passage of a budget by late November is critical.

Although a veto-proof number of alders are sponsoring the Overture amendment, Clear would not predict whether the same alders would vote to override a veto. "That calculus will be different and it depends on the totality of the budget."

When the city negotiated a restructuring of Overture two years ago, the council promised to fund the center by $2 million a year. [Editor's note: Isthmus associate publisher Linda Baldwin is a member of the Overture Center Foundation's board of directors.] It has yet to keep that promise. But Soglin said "when the agreement was adopted, it was made very clear it could not bind subsequent city councils."

Soglin agreed that Overture creates wonderful benefits for the city. "There's no question that Overture provides benefit. That's not the point. The point is where [the money] comes from," he said. "It's hard to say no to our friends. You can't be everything to everyone."

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