Whose fault is it anyway? Who bears responsibility when local politicians buck the will of the public? Is it the fault of folks who go about their days without getting into the grinding minutiae of municipal budgets? Do elected officials bear any responsibility beyond the bare minimum to engage citizens?
I pondered this while reading the Oct. 24 Baraboo News Republic story, “Council hikes own pay.” It described the Baraboo City Council voting to implement a wheel tax and streetlight tax.
The new wheel tax is $20 per year, per vehicle. “Wheel taxes” are the latest trend in seeking additional revenue outside the tax levy. “The wheel tax is an addition to state registration fees. It is projected to provide an additional $187,500 to the city in 2020.” The streetlight fee is $9 per quarter. It is expected to raise $144,000 for operation and maintenance.
Action by the council comes after an advisory referendum on the wheel tax appeared on the ballot in April 2018. The question was solidly defeated with 57% of voters rejecting the idea. In an April 3, 2018, BNR story, Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm said, “the Baraboo Common Council will take the outcome under advisement. The council will review the results of the referendum.” Reviewing those results also meant ignoring those results.
This isn’t a repudiation of the Baraboo City Council per se. It is a reflection questioning what communication is sought or heeded in governmental decisions.
The idea would be voters didn’t know any better. They didn’t understand the critical needs of the city, and the council knew far more than the public. It thusly leads to the question of how much responsibility is on members of the general public to follow, comment, and critique members of the City Council. Is there any responsibility on the part of the City Council members to actively seek public input? If so, from whom do they actually seek input?
I know the answers that will be given by city leaders. Meeting notices are published, and meetings are held regularly. Budget information is provided in newsletters and other resources with financial information online. The challenge becomes whether folks really have the opportunity to understand the budget process and limitations. Are there efforts to actively engage the public?
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A great example of public engagement difference was the four-way stop at the corner of Oak and Fifth in Baraboo. It is home to a small park and the Coffee Bean Connection, a great little haven that makes the intersection busier. Despite not having enough accidents to supposedly merit a four-way stop, city leaders thought wiser and made the intersection safer. Everybody wins.
Budget shortfalls were cited as rationale for new fees. Raise the property tax levy? Is there no “room”? No stories ever have city officials stating they have “taxed to the max.” The closest was Phil Wedekind in the Oct. 10 BNR story, stating “I really think we’re at a point where we have to do something. We have to generate these funds, we can‘t raise the property tax; we don’t have any other choice.”
The April 2018 story also referred to a critical item, stating, “The Legislature is considering requiring municipalities to get voters’ permission via referendum before enacting wheel taxes. Baraboo decided to pre-emptively put the question to voters.” In response, Baraboo “pre-emptively” put the measure in place before voter approval is required. In 2018, Mayor Palm ran unopposed. Council members Tom Kolb, Joel Petty and Michael Zolper won without opposition. No accountability, no fear of retribution at the ballot box.
In the ultimate obtuse move of the year, council members voted to raise their own pay from $300 to $400 a month in the same meeting when crying financial desperation. I understand compensation is largely symbolic to offset substantial efforts, but the irony is too thick to ignore.
Supporting the increase, council member Scott Sloan said, “the change will ensure the city can recruit council members in the future.” My apologies. I have implored people to get involved, maybe even seek office. I thought elections were how we chose council members. Recruited? Those “recruited” will be sought because they share the same mindset. Initially running for school board, I faced criticism because many said I hadn’t lived in Baraboo long enough. How long before you can be “recruited”? Who do you have to know to partake in municipal committees?
Most will take on the additional $60 to $100 or so per year without fanfare. The challenge becomes when our property tax bill is supplemented with a growing myriad of little fees. As fees increase, Baraboo becomes less attractive as a home and business location. As that occurs, city leaders will scratch their heads and pause reflexively asking what happened. Who will be accountable then?