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Alderman wants to ax Madison façade grants

Paul Snyder
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A Madison alderman is ushering the city’s façade improvement program to the budget chopping block despite arguments the business grants boost the city’s bottom line.

There are no figures to support the claim, but Percy Brown, the city’s community development supervisor and administrator of the façade program, said the positive results are obvious nonetheless.

“We don’t have sales figures for those businesses or the businesses around them,” he said. “But you can look at tax assessment data and see how property values have gone up.”

That’s not enough evidence for Madison Alderman Jed Sanborn, who said assessments and property values can be used to justify any budget additions. He said he is not convinced the city should help business owners improve their buildings.

The city’s Board of Estimates on Monday will consider 19 operating budget amendments, including Sanborn’s proposal to eliminate the capital revolving budget, which supports the façade improvement grants. Killing the budget would free up more than $1 million Sanborn said could be used to help pay down the city’s expanding debt service.

But it would be a one-time savings because the revolving budget, which was established in 1987, is segregated and relies on loan reimbursements from businesses rather than money from city taxes every year.

Beyond the façade grants, the budget is available as a source of business loans and other financial incentives.

Sanborn’s proposal to kill the budget might die quickly Monday.

“I would be surprised if any of my colleagues supported it,” said Alderman Mike Verveer, a member of the Board of Estimates. “That fund helps spur development in the community.”

Since 2001, the façade grants have annually drawn $125,000 from the revolving budget, and the popularity of the program prompted a proposed 2010 increase to $150,000.

According to the grant program guidelines, the city gives matching grants up to $10,000 to business owners who want to spruce up their building exteriors. Verveer said he spoke to many owners in downtown Madison who said they would not have improved their buildings without the city grants.

“Our budget situation is not so tight,” he said, “that we have to zero out or reduce a pot of money that’s helped a lot of companies.”

Yet the city is increasing borrowing and spending in the capital and operating budgets at a pace that city Comptroller Dean Brasser said will increase debt payments to more than $25 million by 2016.

Sanborn said the city would be foolish to pass up an opportunity to pay down that debt.

“If people like the businesses, they can buy stock or go in and shop at the stores,” he said. “I have a home office. Does that mean I should take city money to re-side my house?”

The city has a good reason for supporting the façade improvement program for so many years, Brown said.

“This is the only program in this city doing something for business,” he said. “It’s not a giveaway. It’s an investment in the city.”

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