Eau Claire to talk potential for city referendum

·4 min read

Jan. 24—EAU CLAIRE — The City Council is scheduled tonight(Monday) to discuss the potential for a referendum in light of new positions, initiatives and supplies that don't get into Eau Claire's budget each year because of revenue constraints.

During fall's work sessions on the city budget, council members expressed a desire to explore the idea of going to referendum to exceed state-set property tax limits, but did not yet commit to holding one.

"There has been an interest in hearing about alternate revenue sources that could help with the budget," Interim City Manager David Solberg said.

If elected officials do indeed want to get a question in front of voters this year, Solberg said he's looking to get a clear indication of that during a work session tonight(Monday).

"We're at the point where if they'd like to have a referendum in 2022, staff would need some direction," he said.

Tonight Solberg will ask the council to discuss if it wants to go to referendum — and if so, when?

The city has already missed the deadline to get a referendum onto ballots in April. That leaves the Aug. 9 primary and Nov. 8 general election as the remaining options this year.

Solberg also plans to use tonight's work session to explain the referendum process to the council. That will include describing the duties of city staff and elected officials.

City employees cannot advocate for a referendum, but are tasked to provide factual, unbiased information. Solberg said that would include answering questions about the cost of positions and programs a potential referendum would fund, as well as impacts those would have on taxpayers.

"Certainly we want to learn more about the process, what it would take," council President Terry Weld said.

The council's interest in broaching the subject of a referendum comes from difficulty finding money in the budget to meet the service demands of a growing city.

"It just requires more staffing," Weld said. "The levy limits make that hard."

Property taxes used to pay for personnel and other operating costs are only allowed to increase at the same pace as new construction does in cities due to limits set by the state. Taxes used to pay for debt on new capital projects aren't subject to the same strict limits.

Cities can seek alternative operating revenue sources such as new fees or ask their voters' permission to exceed levy limits.

In an October budget work session, city Finance Director Jay Winzenz detailed requests made by city departments for new positions and initiatives that didn't make the 2022 budget because of operating revenue limits.

"These unfunded requests total about $3 million," Winzenz said on Oct. 5.

Those included new firefighters, community service workers, a building inspector and a support staff position, as well as additional police overtime. Nonpersonnel requests for software licenses, firefighting equipment, street sealing work, other equipment and small projects also were among items that didn't get into the budget.

Tonight's(Monday) discussion won't get into specific items that a potential referendum would be used for, Solberg said. Tabulating up the needs for a referendum would be done at a subsequent meeting, he said, if the council decides that it does indeed want to ask for voters' approval to exceed property tax levy limits.

Other business

Also during this week's City Council meetings:

—The first set of public hearings on Eau Claire's planned road projects for this year will be tonight(Monday). Improving five alleyways and four minor road resurfacing projects will have hearings tonight before they are voted on during Tuesday's meeting.

—The Eau Claire Fire Department is seeking approval to apply for a Department of Homeland Security grant to create new firefighter positions. The $1.8 million sought from the program would pay for six new firefighters for three years.

—A Tuesday work session will discuss stakeholder involvement in the recruitment of a new city manager. The city's previous search for a new leader included panels of city employees and community members who got a chance to speak with finalists for the job.

—In closed session on Tuesday, the council may consider recommendations from the ad hoc City Manager Recruitment Committee and executive search firm Polihire on applicants for city manager.