Madison city government failed at one of its fundamental tasks in 1967, ending the year without an adopted 1968 budget. It was, one alder said, “the city’s darkest moment.”
The crisis began in early November, when the Board of Estimates cut $500,000 from the $26.1 million school budget. Back then, the city set the appropriation for the schools; all the Board of Education could do was decide how to spend the money the city authorized.
School officials were blind-sided and outraged; Superintendent Douglas Ritchie said Mayor Otto Festge had been duplicitous, and board member Arthur “Dynie” Mansfield accused alders of “looking forward to the next election more than to the welfare of children.”
The people supported their school board, overflowing the council budget hearing on Nov. 20 with the largest crowd in several years—about 350 interested and agitated persons, the overwhelming majority of whom supported restoring the funds. Some said pay for it through the property tax; some said impose the $9 auto registration fee the legislature had enacted a few days earlier, but they almost all said pay for it.
The council got the message, and restored the $500,000. But paying for it meant a choice—adopting the increased budget entirely on the property tax would mean a two mill increase, to a mill rate of 49; limiting the increase to one mill would require adopting the wheel tax they had reason to believe might be invalid.
Because, as the attorney from the anti-wheel tax American Automobile Association pointed out, the enabling legislation had an effective date of January 1; city attorney Edwin Conrad thought the council could adopt the tax prior to then, but wasn’t entirely sure.
Sometime after midnight, the council took the warning from the AAA’s A. Roy Anderson to heart, and voted 11-9 against the wheel tax; sometime around three in the morning, it thought again about a tax rate of 49 mills, and adopted the wheel tax, 12-8.
But a week later, Attorney General Bronson La Follette said Anderson was right—the city could not adopt a wheel tax until the legislation took effect. The ordinance it adopted was void, and the city suddenly had a half million-dollar hole in its budget—with only about two weeks before the deadline for mailing the tax bill.
Mayor Festge, who had vowed to hold the line on property taxes after raising them five mills in his first two-year term called a special Council meeting to adopt a resolution expressing the Council’s intent to re-adopt the wheel tax after Jan. 1. It quickly descended into chaos and confusion. “I can’t remember a worse situation or a worse meeting,” said 17-year veteran Ald. Lawrence McCormick.
First, the council voted 12-10 against Festge’s comfort resolution solution. Then it voted against raising the mill rate to cover the shortfall, and voted 14-8 to direct City Clerk Eldon Hoel to issue tax bills with the levy at 48 mills. But then it rescinded that action, too, and recessed until Dec. 12—even after Hoel said the tax bills had to be issued by Dec. 8.
“This is the night the city of Madison stopped meeting its obligations,” west side Ald. Robert “Toby” Reynolds said. “I say God help our town and God help those of you who vote seven ways on one issue.”
A semblance of order was restored on Dec. 12. First, the legislature passed a new bill enabling cities to enact the wheel tax prior to Jan. 1. That night, Festge cast the tie-breaking vote to adopt the comfort resolution the council had earlier rejected, clearing the way for Hoel to issue tax bills at the 48 mill rate, which he did.
But when the Council returned on Dec. 28 to make good on its pledge to re-adopt the auto tax, the wheels fell off. With three alders absent, including pro-auto tax Ald. Milo Flaten, the Council voted 11—8 for its enactment—one vote short of the number needed. Festge pleaded with the eight opponents, but none would change his vote. The tax bills had already been sent out at 48 mills, leaving that avenue closed as well.
With the budget thus still half a million dollars out of balance, the council then delivered the final blow, voting 18-1 to rescind the budget entirely. For apparently the first time since Madison’s incorporation in 1856, the city was entering a new year without an adopted budget—and wouldn’t have one at least until the Council next met, on January 12.
And no one knew what further chaos that first fortnight might bring.
On Dec. 12, the council voted 11-11, with Festge voting aye to break the tie, to declare it would re-adopt the wheel tax as soon as it could legally do so, probably on Dec. 28.