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Fitchburg nonprofit supporters ready to make their voices heard at public hearing Tuesday night

October 10, 2017 GMT

As dozens of people plan to swarm Fitchburg City Hall Tuesday night in support of funding nonprofit groups shut out of the city’s proposed 2018 budget, council members aren’t united on how to deal with the issue.

A public hearing to discuss the proposed budget with Mayor Jason Gonzalez and the City Council is scheduled at city hall, and Boys & Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson is spearheading a campaign to flood the council’s chambers with people who are against a proposal to cut funding to his club and two other nonprofits.

Bolstered by the support of U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, and three former Fitchburg mayors, Johnson cranked up the intensity of his attack on Gonzalez and the council Monday. “I don’t want kids and families to be hurt by the games that the Fitchburg politicians are playing at the expense of people’s lives,” Johnson said.

Council members, who can’t take action at the listening session, have said they have not had their opinions altered by Johnson’s verbal full-court press.

Since the mayor isn’t allowed to make changes to his proposed budget after it’s introduced, the only way to fund the nonprofits is through an amendment introduced by a City Council member by Thursday. An amendment is in the works, but it would fund the nonprofits through a competitive grant rather than by the line-item process used in previous budgets, according to Ald. Tony Hartmann.

Although details of the amendment are scant, it appears to be similar to how the club gets money from the city of Madison. The club received $344,000 from Madison — $240,000 from the property tax levy and $104,000 from federal money — in 2017, according to Jim O’Keefe, Madison’s director of Community Development.

Johnson opposes such an amendment. He believes the club shouldn’t have to compete for funding with other nonprofits because its relationship with the city is basically a contract to provide transportation and meals for Fitchburg children at its Allied Drive-area youth center. “There’s not one other nonprofit in Fitchburg who can provide this critical city service the city can’t provide,” he said.

Some on the council oppose the amendment, too, and it may not have enough support to pass, according to Ald. Tom Clauder. No other amendments appear to be on the horizon. “We’re going to be criticized no matter what we do in reference to this,” Clauder said.

In his proposed $20 million operating budget, Gonzalez eliminated the $50,000 that the club received this year as well as a combined $25,000 for Badger Prairie Needs Network and Healthy Neighborhoods. The club has received at least $40,000 from the city since 2005, according to a document sent to Johnson from former Fitchburg mayor Steve Arnold.

Mayor: Cuts needed

Gonzalez said the cuts were necessary because the growing city needs to increase services, including staffing a new fire station, while dealing with the loss of $650,000 in shared revenue from the state due to higher-than-usual spending in 2015.

Johnson attacked Gonzalez and his proposed budget through social media, and a group announced it had launched an effort to have Gonzalez removed from office.

The mayor then opened the door to fund the nonprofits when he said last week there was “wiggle room” in the budget via an amendment made by a council member.

Johnson says he has raised more than $70,000 and hopes to raise $80,000 more to cover expenses at the club’s Allied Drive center for the next three years just in case the city goes through with its proposal to cut out funding to the club.

Pocan gave the club two checks worth nearly $3,000 that he solicited from area businesses, and some Fitchburg business owners also offered their financial support, Johnson said. Arnold and fellow former Fitchburg mayors Frances Huntley-Cooper and Jay Allen have pledged their support, Johnson said.

“The bottom line is the council needs to step up and do what’s right. They need to invest in kids in Fitchburg,” Johnson said.

Playing favorites?

Hartmann said Fitchburg is making proper investments and its growing pains as a young community show up at budget time. “It’s messy because we’re volunteer politicians but I think we’re a good group, and there’s a consensus among us to have this grow and be better,” Hartmann said.

“What’s lost in all this is that there are a lot more folks who need help with health care, education, job training and child care. All the other stuff. My point is that our amendment will be addressing a lot of those things.”

Johnson and Clauder both said that it sets up the city to fund its favorite nonprofit groups. But Madison’s policy to fund nonprofits prevents playing favorites by using multiple committees to make recommendations for the council to approve.

“You’ve got to have some sort of allocation process so you aren’t playing favorites,” said O’Keefe. “It sometimes puts the smaller nonprofits at a disadvantage but when you are administering public dollars there has to be some sort of objectivity, accountability and transparency. We try our best to do that with the processes that we use.”

But it doesn’t prevent Johnson from creating “plenty of drama” every year with Madison’s committees in his effort to secure money, O’Keefe said.

“It’s a relief to have it focused on somebody else,” he said.