Upon hearing that Eau Claire’s proposed 2019 budget would essentially keep the status quo, some City Council members uttered the idea of asking voters if they’d be willing to pay more.
At a budget work session earlier this month, city leaders talked about the possibility of holding a referendum to exceed property tax limits set by the state.
Freshman Councilwoman Jill Christopherson was the first to mention a referendum at the Oct. 9 meeting. She said she didn’t know if her colleagues were interested in one, but recommended they educate themselves on requirements and deadlines to get a question on ballots.
It is way too late ask for a referendum that would impact the city’s 2019 budget, noted city finance director Jay Winzenz. The city’s budget approval and the next election are Nov. 6, less than three weeks away, and it takes months to get a question on ballots.
City Manager Dale Peters advised the council to finish work on next year’s budget first and then they could explore information on a referendum.
Some on the council mentioned they would need to know more about the referendum process before talking further about one.
Acting council President Andrew Werthmann said he’d need to know roles that the city’s elected leaders and hired staff are allowed to take should the city pursue that option.
Winzenz and Peters responded that staff cannot advocate in the referendum, limiting their role to providing information.
Though talk of a referendum was brief and very preliminary during that meeting, Winzenz did offer a piece of advice.
The city’s financial expert said if the council decided to go that route, he strongly suggested they be tied to specific positions the city would fund with the money.
Lake Hallie went that route two years ago, asking voters to approve raising the police department budget by $85,000 to pay for a new detective. That village’s referendum was approved narrowly in a 1,679-1,609 vote in the November 2016 election, according to Leader-Telegram archives.
Cities and villages have been subject to state-imposed caps on property tax increases under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and current Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Peters and Winzenz said they expected next year’s budget would’ve been easier because Eau Claire just had a banner year for new construction, which allows property taxes to increase. But they found that didn’t yield enough new revenue to allow creating any new staff positions with existing expenses on the rise.
After seeing some of the budget’s details on Oct. 9, a couple City Council members expressed disappointment that they weren’t able to include new initiatives of their own.
“I feel Eau Claire doesn’t deserve a status quo budget,” Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said.
Werthmann said he’s disappointed the proposed budget didn’t include creating a new position he’s advocated for that would work with neighborhood associations and other community involvement efforts.