The one-two punch of Wisconsin municipal levy limits and current and looming major expenses make it time for Cambridge to talk in earnest about holding an operating and/or capital referendum for 2021.
It’s an idea voiced informally by village officials for at least a year, as an option for 2020. But no referendum materialized this year.
The route to a 2021 referendum seeking to exceed the state levy limit wouldn’t likely be pretty but the accompanying conversation may be necessary.
Further inaction will only bring further delay.
According to the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, towns, villages and cities can’t set such referendums until they get final state word in August on what their levy limit will be for the coming year. And so, the League says at lwm-info.org, “the only true option,” is to conduct such a municipal referendum during a November general election or at a special election late in the calendar year.
So, the soonest such a referendum could happen in Cambridge is November 2020, for the 2021 budget.
It’s an understatement to say that Cambridge’s 2020 budget process was challenging.
Limited to a tax levy increase mirroring the value of its recent net new construction, the village’s 2020 levy was only allowed to go up 1.47 percent over 2019, or about $17,500. That’s significantly below the inflation rate and is out of a total 2020 village tax levy, adopted on Nov. 26, of about $1.2 million. It’s the reality of little-to-nothing new recently being constructed in Cambridge.
In the end, the Village Board made many hard choices for 2020, including voting to fund street repairs at a total cost of about $25,000 while only giving the Cambridge Fire and EMS Commission about $2,600 of the $27,000 it sought for the coming year.
At the same time, the Village Board struggled to find room in its meager allowed tax levy increase to fund rising costs for police, rising costs for senior meals and outreach services and to continue making a $52,000 annual developer’s incentive payment to Dancing Goat distillery.
The village also had to pay its staff and fund their health insurance and other costs.
And the Village Board was committed to keeping some money available in 2020 for things like downtown flowers and a consultant that’s advising it on the clean-up of the former Melster Candies Co. site.
But it put off – again – other spending like the replacement of a now 20-year-old snowplow.
There’s more coming, of course.
New fire and EMS trucks are being eyed and opinions are circulating that the fire department may soon need to go the same course as the EMS, with expensive full-time personnel.
There’s a new fire and EMS station proposed, that’s now in the early planning stages.
There’s the coming six-figure — or more — cost of cleaning up the former Melster Candies Co. site.
And there are ongoing annual expenses for everything from streets to parks to sewer and water infrastructure to downtown redevelopment and cultural and arts programs.
Running a village is expensive, and while levy limits do keep overspending in check, they are precluding Cambridge from funding some things that should be routine costs.
Wrapping all or most of what the village needs to fund into a single referendum question that seeks to exceed the 2021 levy limit for specific purposes, for a specific total dollar amount and for a specific number of years or in perpetuity, now seems to be in order.
With the passage of a successful referendum, the village could exceed the state levy limit similarly to how many school districts now hold periodic referendums to exceed their state spending caps.
If even some of Cambridge’s financial obligations could be put to a successful referendum, it might relieve enough pressure that the Village Board could fit the rest in under the levy limit.
Borrowing might be part of the answer, but the village also has a state-imposed debt limit, so being able to directly exceed the 2021 tax levy seems key.
No, a referendum is not guaranteed to pass.
Yes, there will be opposition. There will be arguments for simply reining in spending, but what to cut? And at what point, after successive years of cutting, is quality of life in the village significantly impacted?
No, the time isn’t ideal with a referendum likely happening in April 2020 for a performing arts center at Cambridge High School.
And, no, not everyone who lives in Cambridge has deep pockets.
But we see routine validity in much of the spending. Streets, pipes, parks and emergency services need to be maintained and periodically upgraded. This is a cost of doing business as a municipality.
The village has a legal obligation to continue making payments to Dancing Goat.
And regardless of the origin of the Melster mess and varying opinions of that, the village is going to have to pay to fix it. This is guaranteed to be expensive.
How to fund all of these obligations into the future, without lengthy, excruciating annual budget meetings, is a conversation the community needs to have, hard as it might be.
The village can’t have another budget season like the one just past.
And timing is crucial.
If a referendum is to happen in November 2020, with the community adequately informed and brought on board ahead of time, and with a reasonable certainty of passage, talking about it in earnest needs to start… yesterday.