city hall eau claire

Eau Claire City Hall

Eau Claire’s public library will get two new positions next year through changes made Tuesday night before the City Council approved its 2019 budget.

In a 6-4 vote, the council boosted its contribution to the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library by $179,800 to fund the positions intended to improve safety in the building, boost literacy outreach and help serve the city’s low-income population.

“There’s no doubt in our mind these positions reflect our values and deserve a place in our budget,” Councilwoman Kate Beaton said.

She recalled being told as a student that dealing with poverty issues was not part of the city’s purview, but she’s been encouraged that the council recently has been addressing problems faced by its low-income population.

But Councilman David Strobel said requests for more police officers, paramedics and computer support positions did not make the budget, while the library hadn’t even formally asked for the new jobs.

“They didn’t come to the city and ask for more money for staffing,” he said. “This is a political decision here.”

Before adding new positions and programs, Strobel said, the city should consider services already in the community, such as Literacy Chippewa Valley.

“Why not work with others instead of creating new programs and expenses here?” he said.

Councilman Michael Xiong backed the additional library positions and said the services there had been instrumental to him and his family.

“Without the library I don’t think I’d be here,” he said.

Council acting President Andrew Werthmann also took issue with some of the places that City Manager Dale Peters and finance director Jay Winzenz suggested cutting to pay for the new positions.

“Part of me wants to go into those and say, ‘Why do you think those are the right areas to cut?’” Werthmann said.

Those cuts included a 5 percent reduction in street chip sealing, eliminating $38,000 in cot and CPR equipment purchases planned for ambulances, not renting portable restrooms for some parks, eliminating a human resources diversity initiative and making police officers — not an outside firm — conduct background checks on job candidates.

Peters explained while the library positions proposed by Councilwomen Catherine Emmanuelle and Emily Anderson were proposed in advance, the part of the budget they’d seek to cut wasn’t submitted until right before Thanksgiving.

“Frankly we were scrambling,” Peters said.

That left the city staff to come up with which contracted services they’d suggest cutting in exchange for the library positions on Monday, hours before the council meeting.

Councilwoman Emily Berge said people attending Monday night’s public hearing seemed to know more details about the cuts than the council.

“I’m not sure how they knew and we didn’t,” she said.

To that, Peters replied, “I apologize if it got out in the public before it got out to you.”

The council approved three other amendments before casting final votes on the 2019 budget. Those changes created a program to help people with evictions or convictions on their records apply for housing, hire a consultant to design a participatory budget process for Eau Claire and designate $5,000 to make council chambers more welcoming to residents.

Much of the city’s budget ultimately passed in a series of unanimous 10-0 votes, but Strobel cast lone dissenting votes on the general fund and library portions of the 2019 budget.

Overall city spending was $139.1 million in this year’s budget and will go up to $149.7 million next year. Of that, $43.5 million will come from local property taxes, about a $300,000 net increase from this year.

The tax rate is falling from $9.26 per $1,000 of assessed property value down to $8.03 per $1,000. That’s due largely to the city’s overall value increasing by about 16 percent from a revaluation of property within city limits. Changes in individual homes’ tax bills will depend mostly on their new value, which was stated in letters mailed out to landowners in late September.

Marijuana fine

In an 8-2 vote, the council approved lowering its $300 fine for first-time offenders caught with a small amount of marijuana down to $1.

“Our laws around the possession of marijuana are outdated and hurtful,” Werthmann said.

The fines are far higher than they should be, he said, and a majority of Eau Claire County voters supported legalizing marijuana use for recreational or medicinal use in a referendum earlier this month.

“For me the referendum voted on in the last election spoke very loudly,” Beaton said.

Even with the lower city fine, the offense still carries about $138 in state-mandated court costs.

Councilman Terry Weld proposed a smaller reduction that would’ve resulted in a $125 fine, which would carry about $170 in court costs. He said that $295 total cost for a marijuana offense would incentivize people to opt for a $250 diversion program.

“I don’t think a $1 fine is responsible governing on our part,” Weld said.

Half the council agreed with Weld, but the 5-5 tie vote wasn’t enough to amend the proposal for a $1 fine.

EMS pacts

Thirteen neighboring municipalities will be paying higher subsides to Eau Claire for regional ambulance service provided by the Eau Claire Fire Department. New 10-year agreements with those communities with per capita fees gradually growing from $2 per resident to $14 were approved Tuesday in a 10-0 vote of the City Council.

“It’s a method we can afford and other communities can afford also,” city Fire Chief Chris Bell said.

Health care providers — Mayo Clinic Health System, HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital, Marshfield Clinic and OakLeaf Surgical Hospital — will pay declining subsidies for the next four years until they will no longer contribute to regional EMS in 2023, in agreements also approved by the City Council.

Other business

• Children and other family members will now be able to sit with council members during meetings, due to a policy change approved in a 7-3 vote. The vote was a reversal in a council policy decision made last year that banned children from the dais where council members make decisions. The issue came up in 2017 when Emmanuelle sought to breast feed her son while still participating in meetings.

• Eau Claire residents will be permitted to keep up to five hens in their backyard to produce eggs for their family, the council decided in an 8-2 vote. Councilmen Strobel and Weld cast the dissenting votes, with the latter saying that he wanted the chicken-keeping ordinance to go to neighborhood associations for discussion before making a decision.

• In a 9-1 vote, the council approved a resolution urging Congress to enact a fee on carbon in fossil fuels. Strobel, who has voted against resolutions seeking state and federal officials to take action on other issues, was the lone dissenter.

Contact: 715-833-9204, andrew.dowd@ecpc.com, @ADowd_LT on Twitter

Contact: 715-833-9204, andrew.dowd@ecpc.com, @ADowd_LT on Twitter