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Services spending law threatens construction

By Paul Snyder

Even if a city finds a way to save money on emergency services, a month-old state law won’t let it happen.

The law means local construction projects likely will suffer as county and municipal governments craft their upcoming budgets, said Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

“Every government,” he said, “is going to have to start making decisions about postponing reconstruction or maintenance of roads, sewer and water systems.”

The law, which was worked into the state’s 2009-11 budget, requires county and municipal governments spend at least as much as they did the year before on police, fire and emergency medical services. If a government fails to meet the requirement, the state, according to the law, will withhold shared-revenue payments.

“It’s one of the most far-reaching provisions we’ve ever put into any budget, and it shouldn’t be there,” said state Rep. Mark Gottlieb, R-Port Washington. “Local governments should be able to decide on what they want to spend on those services.”

Gottlieb has introduced a bill that would repeal the law, which took effect Jan. 1, though he said he does not expect his bill will make it out of committee.

“I really just want to get a public hearing,” he said. “I want to let local officials come in and explain the problem.”

The problem, said Madison Comptroller Dean Brasser, is the law forces local governments to measure service based on cost rather than need.

“Look at where fuel prices were two years ago,” he said. “The city spent a lot on fuel just for the police and fire departments. Well, then they drop in 2009, so we have a savings there. Under this new law, we couldn’t use those savings for other needs.

“We can’t consider efficiencies. We just have to keep spending the same amount.”

Even without the law, Brasser said, spending in Madison likely would not drop for police, fire and EMS. Emergency services constitute about half of Madison’s annual budget, and those expenses seldom face skepticism.

Still, Brasser said, the law unnecessarily takes away the option.

“It’s a mandate that’s too simplistic to be helpful,” he said. “It’s unnecessary and is more of a feel-good thing for the Legislature than it is protective for municipalities.”

The likely outcome of the law, Witynski said, is two difficult local budget cycles and increased political pressure to repeal the law.

Until then, Brasser said, Madison and other local governments face tough decisions.

“This just takes away options you can consider working with,” he said. “It will complicate and confuse the local budgeting process, and it hamstrings local officials.”

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