Proposed amendments to the 2019 Eau Claire city budget such as two additional L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library employees, a participatory budget process and a program to assist those having difficulty renting homes in Eau Claire would improve the city in important ways, backers of those initiatives said.
But other speakers at a public budget hearing Monday said they’re concerned about proposed cutbacks to existing programs that would occur if those new initiatives are added. The City Council is scheduled to vote today to adopt next year’s budget.
Some speakers at the hearing voiced support for those new measures, saying they would help address city issues that need attention. Among the topics prompting support was adding library workers to boost early childhood literacy and curb behavior problems at the library.
Proponents of adding those jobs said those employees would improve literacy skills among low-income residents, many of whom often struggle to read and write well. Such assistance is especially important, backers of the initiative said, as the number of people struggling economically in Eau Claire grows.
A recent study shows 46 percent of Eau Claire residents either live in poverty or struggle financially. Library Board President Bob Eierman said as the library faces growing demand on its services, more employees are essential to continuing to meet patrons’ needs.
“We need people to try to improve the services we provide,” he told Eau Claire City Council members and others attending the budget hearing.
However, other speakers said, those budget additions would come at the expense of existing services that are important to city operations. Several speakers expressed concerns about budget additions resulting in cutbacks to downtown parking enforcement, a concern as growth in the city’s center has led to more traffic-related issues. Other police services also would be impacted, they said.
To deal with parking problems, the City Council previously instituted a two-hour parking limit on many downtown spots, an effort to free up spaces to make parking more convenient for downtown shoppers. Reduced enforcement will lead to more parking issues and reduced patrons for businesses, speakers said.
Reduced parking enforcement “is going to have a significant impact on our parking downtown,” former City Councilman Eric Larsen told council members. “I hope you will consider the lost services that will be impacted here.”
City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann and Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle proposed an amendment to hire a consultant for $25,000 to oversee a participatory budget process. They suggested that amount be cut from the police department’s parking enforcement budget, but that reduction doesn’t have to come from downtown parking, Werthmann said.
“This (cut) would be across our entire city, not just from the downtown area,” he said.
Such budget struggles are a sign of financial constraints the city and other Wisconsin municipalities face, city finance director Jay Winzenz said. Years of expenditures growing faster than state-imposed spending limits allow has the city trying to do more with less, he said.
“Our revenue sources have not been able to keep up with increasing demand for services,” Winzenz said. “The status quo is not sustainable.”
Among other budget amendments was a proposal to add classes to teach people to be better tenants. The program would be aimed at those with a history of evictions or criminal convictions that make renting homes difficult, especially in a tight rental market in Eau Claire.
Werthmann, who authored the proposal, estimates the effort could start with $35,000 in funding, which would include a part-time position and other expenses. To come up with that money, he proposes cutting $27,000 in the city budget for a three-year extended warranty on defibrillators used by emergency response technicians and an $8,000 reduction for new equipment at Hobbs Ice Center.
Speakers at Monday’s meeting also debated whether Eau Claire should approve an ordinance allowing chickens in the city. Those backing the measure, such as city resident Rachel Hart-Brinson, said it would allow people to raise some of their own food and “is an important quality-of-life issue to a lot of people.”
Others spoke against the idea, saying they have concerns about sanitation and the possibility of attracting rodents. Eau Claire City-County Health Department workers said they have studied the issue and the ordinance would include an inspection schedule. Multiple other Wisconsin cities have previously adopted similar ordinances.
The issue previously failed to receive council backing in 2010 and 2011.