Here we go again; more wrangling over Dane County development policies

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi wants to end the commission that helps regulate housing and business development beyond city limits. Parisi announced Monday that he supports abolishing the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission (CARPCE), saying the agency had “failed.”

Unlike other regional planning commissions throughout the state, CARPCE consists of only one county, Dane. It influences development through its oversight of water quality. Three of its 13 members are appointed by the county executive, four by the city of Madison, three by the towns, and three by cities and villages outside Madison. Madison Ald. Larry Palm chairs the commission. (Website here.)

Parisi’s predecessor, Kathleen Falk, also feuded with the commission over an expansion of the Verona urban services area, a battle she lost.

The issue is byzantine, to say the least. At bottom, it involves different priorities on urban development between its rival constituents: county, towns, city of Madison, and other villages and cities.

What’s behind it? “He doesn’t have control over the commission,” one member told me, on condition of anonymity. If Parisi were running CARPCE, “He would make sure all urban service area requests would be voted down.”

The commission’s executive director job remains unfilled, a $135,000 budgetary bone of contention. “There’s a lot not getting done,” said the source.

Complicating matters is that some of the towns last fall talked about dissolving the commission as well over different issues.

Who would assume the duties? There is some indication that Dane County government itself would, if state law permits, which is unclear.

This is the text of the memo Parisi sent Monday to County Board supervisors, slightly edited for space:


… over the past 20 months I met regularly with stakeholders with an interest in the future of the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission (CARPC). Those conversations included the Dane County Cities & Villages Association, the Dane County Towns Association, and representatives of the City of Madison, along with real estate and environmental interests. 

The only consensus I heard in those meetings – everyone else’s appointees to CARPC were to blame for the failures of the agency. Despite the deep concerns I heard, I advanced a series of reforms for consideration – looking for opportunities to establish some common ground. …

Those reforms were never acted upon by CARPC or the Budget & Personnel Panel that is tasked with establishing the Commission’s annual budget. In sharp contrast to trying to build bridges, the Commission proceeded with adopting a budget for 2012 that included an 18% increase and resulted in the Board of Supervisors and County Executive bringing legal action against the Commission.

The level of funding is only one concern. CARPC costs Dane County property taxpayers over $700,000 a year, with no real county oversight or opportunities for accountability.

To try and improve that, I recently proposed a series of reforms to enhance the openness and transparency of CARPC’s annual budget process with the intent of improving the accountability of this dysfunctional agency. 

These ideas were also quickly dismissed by the Budget & Personnel Panel and the Chair of CARPC. No clear explanation as to why a formalized budget process – consistent to the one utilized by units of government prior to approving significant investments of public tax dollars – was offered.

[The Budget and Personnel Panel referenced consists of Verona Mayor Jon Hochhammer, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, Towns Association President Jerry Derr, and Parisi.]

Dane County can no longer finance an agency in which it has no practical opportunity to provide oversight or direction to its operations, work priorities, staffing levels, or other practices that dictate CARPC’s annual budget request to the county. 

At a time when there are strict limits on our ability to raise revenue to fund core human and public safety services, there is no reason to allocate over $700,000 to fund a dysfunctional, solely advisory planning agency.

Of further complication, there is every reason to believe CARPC’s budget request from Dane County could increase significantly for 2014. A federal grant that has funded a significant portion of the agency’s personnel costs in recent years is expiring. … 

CARPC has already indicated it will seek an increase for 2014 and turning to the county to fund those positions could cost our taxpayers an additional $150,000 next year. …

The time has come to dissolve the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission. A resolution to that effect will be introduced to you this week. It has my support.

‘Formed as the lesser of evils’

Sue Studz, one of three Towns Association-appointed commissioners, offered this perspective (slightly edited for space): 

… Joe [Parisi] often cites monies going to CARPC as robbing human services programs and initiatives and CARPC has no statutory “authority” to prevent what he (and Kathleen before him) sees as sprawl. 

… CARPC has been successful in helping some communities do a better job of planning growth and development in cooperation with their neighboring communities. I think towns have benefited by having a seat at the table. I've heard of villages altering plans and increasing some of their densities based on CARPC staff suggestions. The environment has benefited by the commission’s influencing the practice of minimum 90% (and often 100%) storm water retention, etc. 

Unfortunately, CARPC was born amidst pessimism and resignation. It was formed as the lesser of evils, rather than being set up with positive, collaborative enthusiasm. Not a healthy start, and with very little “neonatal care,” this critter has had a difficult time thriving from the get go. 

It’s difficult, and I’d say demoralizing, especially since the commissioners are good, the staff is good, the work they do is good. The BPP (budget and personnel panel) consisting of Joe, Mayor Soglin, and the heads of the Cities and Villages Association and the Towns Association approve the budget and oversee the hiring of an executive director. No other regional planning commission has a BPP in their structure. … 

… We still have no executive director … The 4 BPP members [Hochammer, Derr, Soglin, and Parisi], all very busy leaders, rarely find the time to meet and when they do their meetings are very brief … I’ve been to a number of those meetings and have yet to hear any of the 4 leaders talk about any common vision. …

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