Council Overrides Mayor’s Veto, Passes Budget

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By: 
Cameron Bren

MIDDLETON–At a special common council meeting called for the purpose of overriding the mayor’s veto on the 2019 city budget, voting or deciding on an alternative budget to the one that was approved by the finance committee the council voted six to two, exactly what was needed to override the veto and approve the budget.

The property tax levy increases 2.8 percent under the adopted budget. The mill rate is estimated to be the second lowest for a city in Dane County behind Verona.

The budget includes a resolution to implement a public fire protection direct charge to residents which will appear on water utility bills. The fire protection fee was included as a revenue source, generating about $500,000 annually, in the budget approved by the finance committee and published for citizens to review. Prior to voting on the budget, the council voted against the proposed water utility fee which left a shortfall in the budget for a variety of personnel items. 

Mayor Gurdip Brar vetoed the resolution which effectively vetoed the budget. He said in his veto letter that he did not support what he saw as a backdoor tax. Brar said the fee will not help the water utility and will be an undue burden on low-wage earners and those on a fixed-income.

Brar said Middleton’s economy is strong and property values continue to increase, which will provide future levy increases. He said no cuts were currently on the table and employees would all receive pay increases. 

Brar said he believes the tax increases should be put to the voters.

“The main reason for proposing this regressive fee is that it can be done without going directly to the taxpayers via referendum. It is a hidden tax,” Brar said. “To bypass the referendum process in this way should require a super majority (6 out of 8 city council members) rather than a simple majority.”

Alder Mark Sullivan, who has expressed strong opposition the water utility fee, said the council is responsible to constituents not city staff during the council’s Nov. 20 meeting.

“For 30 years the City of Middleton had made this a municipal charge not a direct charge like what is being proposed,” Sullivan said. “That is 30 years that we have told the citizens of Middleton that fire protection is wholly a function of the general fund and subject to the levy.”

Sullivan said he was told by the water utility manager that the utility doesn’t needs fire hydrants to do its job.

“There is no compelling reason to transfer this public fire protection cost to the water utility, it is nothing but a backdoor excuse to raise our taxes in excess of the statutory limits,” Sullivan said.

Council president Susan West said as elected officials, public safety should be a number one priority and because of limitations placed on municipalities by the state it has been nearly impossible to increase staffing levels relative to population growth. She said that is why nearly every other community in the county has implemented a direct charge for fire protection.

West said the alternative is making cuts to public services and increasing fees which will also make citizens upset. Mayor Brar said there are no program cuts on the table at this point.

City dministrator Mike Davis noted staffing charts which were distributed to the council that looked at number of staff compared to population and property values. The chart indicates Middleton has less full-time equivalent hours in administration relative to other communities accounting for population and tax base.

The council voted on the fire protection charge resolution, which passed five to three, but Brar immediately announced his plan to veto it.

Davis said if the council was considering overriding the veto, which would require a six to two vote, they would need to immediately plan a meeting to do so to avoid getting tax bills out late to residents.

City attorney Larry Bechler said the entire budget would need to be vetoed and the vote to approve the budget would have to be delayed until a complete budget was developed.

Alder JoAnna Richard expressed her disappointment in what will be her last budget process on the council since she is not seeking reelection next year. 

“I’m really disappointed in the mayor that he is not supporting our city. He has talked about all kinds of things throughout the city fixing roads and asking staff to do this and that and now he is not going to support the very function of how we pay for that,” Richard said. “It is also really disturbing that a minority of this council can hold the rest of us hostage. We have just acceded our authority to the mayor, that is what the council has done if we allow this to happen.”

The council scheduled a meeting for the following Monday, Nov. 26 and deferred all other budget resolutions until the vote to override the veto was held. 

The motion to override the mayor’s veto and approve the fire protection fee passed six to two with alders Robert Burke and Sullivan voting no.

The votes to approve the general fund budget, capital projects and TIF district fund, debt service fund, and approving the tax levy all passed on seven to one votes, with Sullivan voting ’no’ on each.

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