City of Fitchburg City Hall March 2020

The outside of Fitchburg City Hall.

What started as a battle of priorities between City of Fitchburg District 2 alders as they defended their changes to the proposed city operating budget ended up getting them both what they wanted.

The Common Council approved a $24 million operating budget for 2022 during its Tuesday, Nov. 9, meeting, after some tense moments as Alds. Julia Arata-Fratta and Gabriella Gerhardt (Dist. 2) repeatedly urged their fellow alders to consider the two dozen amendments they’d suggested. 

Much of Arata-Fratta’s larger items included adding in personnel for the fire department, such as reclassifying three firefighters to become lieutenants and adding a daytime firefighter. Gerhardt’s amendments were focused on environmental projects, including spending $25,000 on creating a city sustainability plan and starting pilot programs to plant native plants in parks and road medians.

Early in the meeting, the tone quickly turned tense as alders bitterly lectured one another about the need to support city staff and approve new positions, but couldn’t seem to agree on which employee positions to add or what to cut from the budget to free up money to pay for additional personnel. After all amendments had been voted on and alders had a chance to reconsider some items, the mood in the council chambers seemed to calm as alders approved the firefighter reclassification four years after it was initially approved, and gave the city’s urban forester an additional day’s worth of hours to bring the role to four days a week, both by a vote of 6-2.

The staffing priorities will be funded through the tax levy as the council agreed to postpone the Stoner Prairie Neighborhood plan project by a few months, and instead elected to pull funding for it from the impending closure of the Orchard Pointe tax-increment district.

The focus on new staffing comes after this year’s draft operating budget added more staff than in two previous years combined. The impending Town of Madison annexation, which will take place within a year, and the subsequent increase in city services that would be needed for 1,500 new residents was the driver behind mayor Aaron Richardson granting 15 new staff positions, more than half of what was requested.

Those new positions include two new police officers, a clerical floater role and an additional social worker for the senior center.

Many of the new staff positions needed to accommodate the annexation will be hired before the city can collect a dime from its tax levy. To pay for those staff positions, the city will use both the future levy limit adjustments it will gain with the Town of Madison absorption and the closure of a tax-increment district in Orchard Pointe on the city’s western side, Richardson wrote in a letter at the beginning of the budget document.

The town annexation levy adjustment will provide an additional $560,690 to the operating budget, and the closure of TID No. 6 will bring in another $224,700, finance director Misty Dodge told the Star earlier this fall.

“It’s a one-time strategy that should work itself out the next year,” Dodge explained. “Next year we won’t need to use those strategies because the levy limit adjustments will actually come on the books.”

Tax bills for the city will stay relatively flat, as the council reduced the amount of the allowable levy slightly, as the amount of additions didn’t equal the amount of cuts made. With 2021 being a maintenance year for the assessing department due to staffing shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic, many homes will keep the same valuation and the average home valued at $330,000 would be an increase of $80 on their city tax bill, or 3.15%.

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kwethal@wisconsinmediagroup.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.

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