City of Madison

Former City of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's Blog

Let’s Move on Overture

December 1, 2010 12:44 PM

Here are three rules of public policy: you can never know everything, you can never make everybody happy, and you should never delay action in the hope that you can do either.

The Madison City Council talked into the wee hours this morning and made no decision on the Overture Center. If they don't act in the next four weeks, a generous offer to retire Overture's $28 million debt without a dime of taxpayer money will evaporate. Worse, those same taxpayers could be on the hook for as much as $6 million in mortgage payments on the building. And while I've never pushed the argument that the building could go dark, I now think that's a real possibility.

My office together with the City Attorney and Comptroller, and with input from the Council, negotiated an excellent agreement with the banks and the donors who have pledged to retire the debt. That agreement would have the city buy the building for a buck and lease it out to a nonprofit to run it. The overall cost to city taxpayers would be about the same as the old Civic Center was, every union worker at Overture would be guaranteed a union job, and millions more in private donations could be raised each year to support the facility. A consultant hired by the Council itself concluded that the plan is workable in every aspect.

But, the Council has some concerns.

First, under this model, about 15 union workers would still be union workers, but they couldn't participate in the Wisconsin Retirement System. That's not ideal, but if the WRS is important to them, they can always move into other city employment and keep that benefit. Seems reasonable to me.

The other concern is that the long-term costs of taking care of the building might be high. We've done two studies now looking at the next 15 years, and both concluded that maintenance costs wouldn't be more than the old Civic Center. And projections that go beyond a decade and a half are speculative at best.

Look, the public-private plan isn't perfect. Nobody can guarantee its success, and sure it doesn't make everybody happy, but in my view it's the best option we have. I'll join Council leadership and other alders who will sit down with the donors, consider all the options on the table and try to come to an agreement that can win the support of a majority of the Council. I will push for a resolution at the Council's next meeting.

Some amendments to the public-private plan would be in order and acceptable to the donors. I'm also open to, but much less enamored of, other models.

So, while I'm disappointed that the Council didn't get it done last night, they did make some progress. I was particularly grateful for the reasonable tone and constructive ideas offered by alders Brian Solomon, Satya Rhodes-Conway and Michael Schumacher.

But the bottom line is they must come to an agreement. For the past six months, the public, the Council, Overture officials, employees, the City Attorney and my office have gathered information, asked good questions and analyzed this issue. We must come to a resolution at the Council's last meeting of the year on December 14. The stakes of failing to do that are just too high.


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