City of Madison

Former City of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's Blog

A Productive Council Meeting... Without Me

April 1, 2009 5:34 PM

I don't like missing Council meetings. In fact, in the six years I've been mayor I've missed only a handful out of about 150 total Council meetings. But I watched the first couple of hours of Tuesday's Council meeting from my sick bed (I've got the cold/flu combination that's been going around) until the Nyquil kicked in and I checked out for the night.

I was happy to learn the next morning that the Council had passed the Northeast Neighborhoods goals, the revised Tax Incremental Financing guidelines, the Bio Ag Gateway proposal and the Madison Police Department's plan for use of federal stimulus dollars. A pretty productive night. More than one wag has suggested that I should stay away more often.

The one item that did get a lot of debate that wasn't expected was a routine recommendation from the City Attorney's office to deny some claims for unlawful taxes. The issue revolves around a very complex legal battle over what had been tax exempt property for low income and other special needs housing, but now after some court rulings and a state Department of Revenue ruling may have to go on the tax rolls.

The issue comes down to an interpretation of state law by the City Attorney and the City Assessor. While I wish their interpretation were different, I cannot tell the City Attorney how to read the law. The job of the City Attorney is to keep us on the straight and narrow when it comes to following state law whether we as policy makers like it or not.

The root of the problem is not with our lawyers but with the state statute, which is much too vague and open to interpretation. My office has been working on trying to get the law clarified through two legislative sessions and last session we came close, but a legislative fix was vetoed at the end of the session. We're back in there trying again this session with the help of Rep. Terese Berceau, who has taken on this very difficult task.

Here's the fundamental problem: how do we create a state statutory sieve that lets through nonprofits that are truly performing a benevolent service while not letting others get away without paying their fair share of taxes. After all, as a city we have a responsibility to our taxpayers to make sure that those who should pay their taxes do so, so that the burden of taxation doesn't fall on our homeowners more than it should.

Last week, I personally discussed the matter with Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan and Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson and all of Madison's legislative delegation has been briefed on the issue.

Meanwhile, the unlawful taxation claims have been referred back to my office as well as the City Attorney and Assessor. The issues are so complex that it might be a good idea for the City Attorney and Assessor to have a briefing for alders where they can go over their reasoning and answer questions. I feel that once alders get a chance to have all their questions answered most are likely to agree that the problem lies not with our own staff interpretations of the law but with the statute itself.


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