It isn't the most practical idea to ever percolate through the city's budget process. But it also sounds kind of awesome: a special event where people can ride go-carts around Capitol Square.
The idea, as suggested on the city's new interactive budget site, is simple: "The City of Madison would try to hire Wisconsin natives Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth to make this one of Madison's most popular weekend events; professional, amateur, and public racing categories; zoom-zoom."
The idea has at least one fan in Sally Miley, an assistant to the mayor. "I'm going to vote for that," she says.
But if you're one of those folks who think that government should be all about serious business and not fun and games, don't worry. The go-cart idea didn't get any love on the Idea Scale site, madison.ideascale.com. As of Friday, it had a net 11 votes against it - and the person who proposed it eventually withdrew the idea.
Every year, Madison officials hold budget hearings, usually after the mayor has already drafted a spending plan. Mayor Paul Soglin has pushed to get citizen input at the beginning of the process, and the new website is a product of that effort.
"I like the meetings," Miley says. "But it's so much easier for people to sit in their kitchen and log onto the website than it is to go to meetings. People are so busy."
Soglin admits that it will be tough to fund any of these ideas. But he adds, "In times of austerity by the federal and state governments, there is still a need to do new things. The world's changing, and if we don't respond and simply continue to provide only the traditional services, we're going to fail in terms of building a vibrant community and a healthy economy."
Registration to the site is required, but people can do so anonymously. Anyone can submit ideas and vote for or against them.
The most popular idea so far is to help expand Sector67, the high-tech workshop space. As of Tuesday it had 107 votes. Curbside composting and building a bus transfer hub and public market are also popular ideas. Surprisingly, for Madison, decriminalizing marijuana is getting little support, with nine votes against.
Soglin says he's noticed a number of ideas coming from people younger than 30. "These are folks who don't normally get involved in the budget process. It's real important that we pay attention to their commentary."
The mayor says one school of thought argues against gathering citizen ideas early in the process because officials wind up disappointing people if they can't fund them. He's found the opposite to be true.
"Because of the greater involvement in the process," he says, "there's less criticism."
Bridging 'the gap'
In city hall, it is ominously known as "the gap." Although the city is months away from approving a 2014 budget, finance director David Schmiedicke has projected how much the city is obligated to spend next year and how much it is expected to take in through taxes, fees and government aid. It is not a pretty picture, with the city $7 million in the hole.
Last year at this time, the gap was about $10 million. Says Schmiedicke: "It's a smaller number this year, but there are fewer options for how to solve it."
The problem is that the city has been cutting back expenses for the past couple of years, leaving very little fat in the budget, which this year is $267 million. Mayor Soglin is pessimistic about potential cuts, saying personnel is the biggest city expense. "That means either layoffs or adjustments in salaries," he says. "Either way, it comes down to a reduction in services."
Fortunately, the gap isn't a static figure, Schmiedicke says. It will likely change in the upcoming months, as the city gets better estimates on things like fuel costs, health insurance, hotel room tax revenue and other fluctuating revenues and expenditures.