Budget deliberations kick off tomorrow. The Madison city council has several long meetings in store, where it will decide both its capital and operating budgets over the course of this week.
The operating budget is for day-to-day expenses, such as staff wages and supplies. The capital budget is for building physical infrastructure and long-term projects, such as a new building or replacing a road. And combined, the operating and capital budget guide city priorities through spending for the year ahead.
This week, a group of alders are asking to give the Madison Public Market a new chance at life, through a budget amendment for the capital budget.
The Madison Public Market Foundation calls the market a, quote, year-round public market where small businesses and minority business owners can get their start. According to the project’s website, it would hold fresh produce, food stands, merchant space for local artists, and community rooms.
District 12 alder and former Common Council President Syed Abbas represents the area that would contain the market, just outside of East Towne Mall, and has been a long-time proponent of the project.
“(It is) a path to equity and economic development for small and medium sized businesses,” Abbas says. “It also provides opportunities and removes barriers for immigrants, communities of color, and other community members who are interested in the food industry, especially with the city of Madison’s $100,000 investment in the Market Ready Program so that this market is a platform for them to move forward to the next steps.”
While the idea of a public market has been around for over 15 years, the Common Council finally approved the project back in 2015 with a budget of around $14 million.
But as the pandemic hit in 2020, the market, like many other local projects, quickly saw itself the target of inflation, and is currently projected to be around $5 million over budget.
James Shulkin is a board member on the Madison Public Market Foundation, the group that would run the Madison Public Market. He says that, after both the Mayor and the city’s finance committee declined to provide the needed funding to continue the market, Alder Abbas decided to take action for himself.
“Alder Abbas, who I know attended the finance committee, he was the one who was very interested in making sure there was some sort of amendment going forward to revise the capital budget and put funds forward specific to the public market and its financing,” Shulkin says.
The new amendment, included in the city’s capital budget, is sponsored by Alder Syed Abbas, Regina Vidaver of District 5, and Nasra Wehelie of District 7. The amendment looks to add $6 million to the project, using funding from the tax district on the near east side.
The amendment would also accept $1.5 million in funding that was included in the recently passed Dane County budget. That funding was passed by the county board last week on the condition that the city finds a way to fund the rest of the project.
But if the project is about $5 million over budget, why bring the city and county’s new investment total up to $7.5 million? Alder Abbas says that this way, the project won’t face more hurdles.
“So if, when we going to the construction phase next year, as the sponsor of the amendment, my intent was to look into what to do in case the costs of construction increase, we don’t need to go back to the council to get approval,” Abbas says. “Let’s get it done now so we have predictability in the project.”
Both alder Abbas and James Shulkin say that they feel confident that the market will get the votes they need to keep the project afloat. That’s because, as city finance director David Schmiedicke explains, they won’t need to borrow any money to fund it.
“GO borrow, so that’s (when) we would issue debt and receive that money and pay interest on that,” Schmiedicke says. “In contrast, what’s in the amendment is basically what would be tax increment revenues in TID 36 in which the public market is located, and where there are expected to be sufficient incremental revenues in that TID to cover both what’s already been budget for the market in prior city capital budgets, as well as what’s proposed in this amendment.”
Not everyone is on board with the plan to provide more funding to the public market. Council President Keith Furman says that the money used from the tax district could be used in other, more sustainable ways. Furman says that by funding the market now, it could open up the city to having to shell out more money down the road.
“I think that, if you look at the amount of money that we would have committed toward the market if the amendment passes, we will be in the position where we will have to continue to fund the market no matter what the business model looks like,” Furman says. “I’m not convinced that the market is going to be profitable any time soon, but at some point they will need money to be subsidized, and the city will be on the hook for that. I think when we have serious structural budget issues now, that will only get worse, I don’t want the city to be obligated to provide this building additional funds.”
But alder Regina Vidaver, who co-sponsors the amendment, says that those fears are overblown.
“There is a business plan agreement with the Madison Public Market Foundation, they will take care of the operations that will not be on the city’s side,” Vidaver says. “The city’s agreement has always been to provide the funding to develop the market, and then the foundation would take over the operations. Nothing about that has changed, and I believe that the business plan is very strong from the foundation to be successful in those operations long term.”
In all, there are eight proposed amendments to the 2023 Capital Budget. While the public market is the most expensive amendment up for debate, there are still three other amendments that would cost over one million dollars.
These include a $1 million grant for the River Food Pantry to purchase a new building, and $3.5 million to help build the new Truman Olson Grocery Story on the city’s south side to fill in the neighborhood’s food desert.
Photo courtesy: Peter Wendt / UNSPLASH