Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

Keep graduate school restructuring talks open (October 2009)

[This post originally appeared in the October 29th issue of the Badger Herald]

I’ve been to two town hall meetings on reorganizing the research enterprise at UW, and like other commentators, I don’t get it. Not only do I not get how the changes are going to fix some of the problems we’re facing on running our research programs but I also don’t get why so much of the faculty is so fearful of this proposal.

The provost would be the first to admit there are very few details in the plan as presented. This might even be by design — as professor Mike Corradini pointed out in the final town hall, a full proposal would have been torn apart as soon as it was unveiled. The proposal creates a new vice chancellor for research, split off as a separate position from the current dean of the graduate school and vice chancellor for research. Some functions of the current job would stay with the dean of the grad school, but other functions would go with the new position. Additionally, some of the safety and regulatory compliance responsibilities that are spread around campus would be brought together under the new vice chancellor.

That’s it. That’s all that’s been proposed. No one has specified how big the new research organization might be, but given the relatively small dollar amount mentioned, it’s not likely it could be much more than six new people.

All of the positions created in the initiative could fit (uncomfortably) in a full-sized sedan. That’s not enough to address all the improvements we want to make. How we engage the rest of campus are the details we need to start discussing.

The driving force behind the initiative is a rash of serious safety and protocol incidents that have been near-disasters for UW research. Additionally, grant administration and the reporting UW is required to do on behalf of faculty members has been severely backlogged for years. UW could improve in other areas, like managing industry-sponsored research, career development for grad students and post-docs, and building a more visible presence in Washington. It may be that a new position is the best way to address these shortcomings or it may be best to leave research in the graduate school, or some option yet to be discovered. In any course, it doesn’t seem like the outcome of these discussions would much depend on how the top level of the university was organized.

But are we going to be able to seriously have this discussion? There’s such a rush to beat up this proposal that there’s very little space for anyone to speak positively about any changes. Corradini, whose reputation and record of service to the university is beyond reproach, essentially felt the need to apologize before speaking in support. The website Siftingandwinnowing.org, a self-styled “independent opinion forum for the UW-Madison community” goes further, with one post suggesting that a town hall contained “plants” recruited to speak out in favor of the proposal.

In another post ironically titled “A Call To Speak Up”, the faculty are urged to shed timidity and come out against the proposal. The post is signed CK Adams. Charles Kendall Adams, president of the university from 1892 to 1901, was the author of the famous “Sifting and Winnowing” passage. What seems forgotten is the crucial “fearless” that immediately precedes the phrase.

The discussion over how we want to improve the university, and yes, perhaps make changes at the very top of the organization, is precisely in line with the ideals of fearless sifting and winnowing. Our faculty, staff and students are protected by a combination of tenure, 36.09 and a fierce tradition of shared governance and open discussion. If we have come to a point where members of the university community cannot speak their true thoughts due to real or imagined fear of compromised relations with the administration, then we have far bigger problems than who is the head of the research enterprise. Pseudonymous blogging is not worthy of being signed “Charles Kendall Adams.”

With the lack of details, just as it is hard to see the proposal as a serious improvement to the university, it is equally hard to find much cause for fear. Direction from the top to set research agendas of individual faculty members is always a danger, regardless if it comes from the current graduate school or from a new research office. The same forces that hold back such interference now will always continue to exist, no matter what the top of the organization chart looks like.

We have urgent needs in our research organization. What changes we make or don’t make to address those needs should be an open discussion, free from fear and intimidation. Our researchers are at the forefront of their fields, and a maximized research enterprise isn’t just crucial for the UW, it’s crucial for society. Failure to live up to that responsibility is what we should fear.

A beer tax for downtown Madison (October 2009)

[This originally appeared in Muckrakers on October 15th, 2009]

This post isn’t going to win me any friends, but what if we added a localized alcohol sales tax to downtown bars?

A few years back, Madison added a $100,000 fund for the “Downtown Safety Initiative”. It funds police overtime to add extra patrols on busy nights in downtown Madison. The DSI isn’t used every night, or even every weekend night – it often depends on what else is going on, like football games and even the weather. Every year, the DSI runs out of money before the end of year.

The DSI has always been a target or acomplaint from alders from outside the downtown core. It is in the budget again this year – with a twist. Instead of getting $100,000, this year it’s funded at $80,000. The remaining $20,000 will come from “donors”. From a Mayor who prides himself on enhancing public safety, that’s sort of like replacing some of our full time fire fighters with volunteers.

I’m glad the DSI is being funded, and I’d like to see the police have extra resources, so long asthey’re not being wasted on checking for 20 year olds with fake IDs. In fact, I’d like to see if funded sufficiently to make it through the entire year. However, it’s a tough sell to the rest of the city to increase the funding, especially in this budget environment.

The Ed Board today decided that it could handle the principle of taxing booze to raise some funds for the government. It’s not quite apples-to-oranges, but what if we applied the same logic and added a sales tax to downtown alcohol sales? We could use that new revenue to fund the DSI. It wouldn’t be a huge tax, mind you, just maybe something that would raise a tolerable beer from $3 to $3.15 or $3.25. The DSI doesn’t cover the entire city, so this wouldn’t hit every bar in the city. A logical set of bars to add the tax would be the bars in the Alcohol License Density Plan area.

It’s a small enough tax that no one is seriously going to say “fuck it, I’m going out to the Hilldale Great Dane because it’s cheaper”. It’s not meant to reduce alcohol consumption. Even a very small tax could raise some serious funds – the bars in the ALDP do millions of dollars a year in alcohol sales. It applies to everyone who drinks downtown, including those who come in from the outskirts of town, but only those who actually use the downtown bars. That’s something that all-but-officially-running-for-Mayor Alder Schumacher could support.

It’s also more fair than asking for voluntary contributions from downtown businesses. The cost of the “donation” is going to get passed on to the clients anyway, and so what’s the incentive for all bars to participate? Brothers would be better off if it didn’t donate, and instead let Wando’s and the KK pony up.

There’s certainly precedence – many of the bars in the downtown area are already part of the Business Improvement District, which means they all have no choice but to pay extra taxes to support special programs in the downtown area.

I have no idea if this plan is even legal, and if state law permits the city to tax like this. I assume that if nothing else, the city can put conditions on liquor licenses to effectively create the tax.

It’s a better plan than passing the hat to fund a critical safety tool.

ASM Bylaws amendment: clarify eligibility

Of all of the parts of ASM, the Student Services Finance Committee and funding of student groups through the General Student Services Fund is the most confusing, especially the eligibility process. Even for the elected members of ASM, it’s mostly a mystery for why some groups get funded and others don’t, or why it only comes up in the fall. Come November, the campus papers stop writing news stories about it and what little thought anyone paid to it is set aside. However, there’s an important change that should be made, and a bit closer look is in order.

Of course, by now you should know the very basics of the process: ASM, in a viewpoint neutral manner, may fund student services. What you may not know is that ASM has essentially no control over what it funds. If two groups or twenty groups apply, ASM has to give all of them equal opportunity. Anything that meets the criteria must be funded.  ASM cannot even consider “is the service useful.” To keep segregated fees from being considerably higher than what they already are, ASM has very narrow criteria of what it means to be a service, as well as an examination process to scrutinize groups in-depth to ensure that groups fit those criteria.

ASM has split the process into two parts. The first, determining a group’s eligibility, serves as the primary gatekeeper to the GSSF. This is done before considering a group’s budget primarily to save time. No group could be funded without first meeting all of the eligibility requirements, and roughly half of the groups that apply don’t meet them. By eliminating these groups early, no one’s time is wasted creating and considering a budget that won’t ever be funded.  ASM budgets annually, so for the second part, all eligible groups negotiate their budgets once a year. However, once a group is found eligible, it remains eligible for two annual budgets. This is again to save time, as a group’s mission and focus is usually stable.

ASM is forced into a tight timeline to line the academic year funding cycle up with the state’s fiscal year. In order for a group to receive funding in July, ASM needs to start the budget hearings the previous October, and eligibility needs to be determined before that.  An obvious way to relax this timeline is to complete the bulk of the eligibility hearings during the previous spring, during the first of the two years a group has eligibility. The only groups that would need to have hearings at the very beginning of the fall are brand new groups. Currently, no group would dare try this because the ASM Bylaws are ambiguous as to what would happen if a group applied early for eligibility status and is denied. At the October 14th ASM meeting, I will propose an amendment that makes it clear that this would not jeopardize a group’s existing eligibility. With this change, the SSFC can adopt a better system that is less stressful for the SSFC and for groups. Effectively, groups can apply annually for a two-year “rolling horizon” of eligibility.

The rolling horizon adds stability to services. Should a group be found not eligible in one year, they have an additional year to retool their proposal before they become ineligible for funding. This is important as the GSSF criteria is continually adjusted, but the only way for a group to discover if their service truly meets all of the criteria is to go through an SSFC eligibility hearing. If a group is denied under the new criteria, it can always come back next year, but the intervening year the all services are not offered, not just the services that are no longer eligible. The gap year is detrimental to the student body. Stability in the service is crucial for the effective delivery of that service: we cannot hope that students will keep track of what services are available one year, not the next, and then available again. It is fiscally irresponsible to allow for that gap to occur – during the first year back, GSSF funds are wasted while a group rebuilds its presence on campus and students rediscover its availability.

Unless ASM is really on the ball, and it never is, changes to the fiscal policies take at least a year to go into effect. Groups need to be given adequate notice before changes are enacted, and policies are written before the start of a fiscal year. If ASM were to adopt a rolling-horizon of eligibility, at this point all groups have already missed their opportunity to file for it, and the less stressful timeline I hope to enable could not start until 2011 at the earliest. However, there is another change that could accelerate that change, and allow the SSFC to switch to a new system this spring. This is the second of my two motions. By granting an additional year of eligibility to all groups who were eligible in fiscal year 2010, we can retroactively create the rolling horizon. This is a blanket grant, which is viewpoint neutral, and simply assumes that the SSFC, which has already established the eligibility of these groups, would have continued to do so under the criteria they were using at the time.

Several of you have probably realized this by now, but there is a side-effect to the two amendments that’s not obvious to most students but is of interest to many: the second change would also restore eligibility to the Campus Women’s Center, the Student Tenant Union, and Wunk Sheek. Of course, this was not the motivation for proposing these changes; my interest lies in making the SSFC process less stressful and more efficient, as well as making service delivery more effective.

The changes are offered as two separate motions, to keep the discussions focused and the meetings efficient. The second motion does depend on the first being adopted, so if the first motion fails I will move to postpone indefinitely the second.  I expect more opposition to the second motion than the first. The second motion is slightly time-sensitive, as it affects the SSFC’s current budget hearings, and so needs to be completed within a few meetings. If we are convinced the second motion is never going to pass, it is safe to refer the first motion to the SSFC and to consider it this winter.

The Amendments:

First motion: Amend the ASM bylaws to change 2.032(1)(a) to read: (New material underlined)

2.032(1)(a)- Determined Eligible

Group Eligibility for GSSF funds is determined in a SSFC Eligibility Hearing. Groups that are determined eligible in a given year are approved to submit funding requests to the SSFC for the subsequent two fiscal 
years. For example, a group successfully completing an eligibility hearing in September 2001 is able to request funding for FY 2002-2003 and 2003-2004. A group may request an eligibility hearing every year without jeopardizing any existing eligibility determinations. For example, a group that successfully completes an eligibility hearing in September 2009 (FY 2010) is able to request funding for FY2011 (July 1 2010-June 30 2011) and FY2012 (July 1 2011-June 30 2012). If that group requests another eligibility hearing in September 2010 (FY 2011) and is denied, the group may still submit a budget for FY2012 under the eligibility determined in FY2010.

Second motion: Amend the ASM bylaws to create 2.032(1)(c)

2.032(1)(c)- FY2011 Eligibility Bridge

To allow for the SSFC to implement a new eligibility hearing calendar, as facilitated by a 2009 clarification to the ASM bylaws, groups that were authorized to submit budgets for FY2010 are granted an additional year to their original eligibility determination.  Groups that were determined eligible in FY2008 hearings and authorized to submit budgets for FY2009 and FY2010 are allowed to submit budgets for FY2011. Groups that were determined eligible in FY2009 hearings and authorized to submit budgets for FY2010 and FY2011 are authorized to submit budgets in FY2012

ASM Budget Amendment #4: Housing and Tenant support services

The motion: ‘Create a line-item for “Housing and Tenant support services’ with a recommendation for “Add to IB”‘

Nearly all UW students, if they don’t live in the dorms, rent an apartment. Outside of tuition, rent is probably the single biggest expense in a student’s life. For most undergrads, the first apartment they will ever rent will be during their years here. Stable and worry-free housing is critical to students’ academic and personal wellbeing. All of these are reasons why housing counseling and support services should exist on this campus.

ASM has had a history of funding these sorts of services, but it has been inconsistent in its approach over the past decade. This is mostly due to the SSFC changing the criteria for the GSSF, in response to external and internal pressures. We have in the past simply purchased services from a provider, funded a non-student majority group through the GSSF, and funded a student-majority group through the GSSF. It appears that in FY2011, as it stands now, the only housing support services ASM will fund is the tenant ratings website. This is a worthy service, but is not sufficient. It is time to stop hoping that a group will come forward and provide these services.  Instead, ASM should act to secure them.

I propose amending the internal budget resolution to include a line item for “Housing and Tenant Support Services”, and to start the process of issuing an RFP for contractual services as provided for under 6(a)(8) of UW System Policy F-50. The Finance Committee, with the assistance of an ad-hoc working group of council members, shall develop the requirements and estimate the expected costs. Services that we may want to acquire include:

  • UW-Madison student specific email support address, with guaranteed response times.
  • UW-Madison student specific phone hotlines, with guaranteed hours of operation
  • Landlord/Tenant mediations
  • Tenant rights education campaigns, specifically targeting UW-Madison students
  • Outreach events in the dorms in the fall semester, explaining the rental process to new students
  • Operation of the “Tenant Ratings Website”
  • On campus, in person support
  • Development of a fall “Housing Fair” in the Kohl Center
  • Training of student advocates and ombudsmen
  • Subletting agreement assistance
  • Documentation and case management of rental difficulties
  • Housing information for departmental recruiting, particularly of graduate and professional students

As part of the contract, ASM may have to provide certain things (like the email address, or the space for the on-campus in person support, or marketing support for events, etc)

At the moment, this is all pretty vague. I’m not sure of the best way to fund these services, the internal budget might be best, or else through the ancillary fund (which may require a transfer of funds).  At the moment, I just want a placeholder in the budget resolution.  I am hopeful that other council members may be interested in helping more fully develop the proposal over the next few weeks.

ASM Budget amendment #3: Shift technology support to the full-time staff

The motion: ‘Create line-items for “Technology Support Specialist’ and ‘Technology Support Specialist Fringe benefits” with a recommendation for “Add to IB”‘”

This is a long-shot, but ASM would be better served with another fulltime staff person, in support of technology and information management.

We have been extremely fortunate that ASM has had the services of Brett Epps for the past two years. Frankly, Brett is significantly underpaid, and it is extremely unlikely we will ever find another webmaster even half as good as he is for what ASM pays. However, that should signify how difficult a problem we face – the ASM website, even with Brett’s good work, is still a disaster.

The FY2011 budget draft we are considering addresses this by replacing the hourly webmaster with a graduate PA position, which would be a marked improvement over the status quo. However, I feel strongly that we would be better served with a fulltime staff person managing the website, technology, and the information and records of ASM. [Full disclosure: as a Computer Sciences student, it is quite likely that many of the applicants for this position will be from my department. I am certain I will encourage CS grad students to apply for the job, if it is created, and it would be to the benefit of my department if they were hired]

The graduate assistant and the staff member would probably do an equally fine job with the ASM website. The biggest difficulty with the ASM website is a lack of a plan for the website: Brett spent much of his time last year developing an interactive wall on the main page. The wall currently has 65 posts, half of which are from ASM employees paid to post on the wall. Was Brett’s time seriously worth 32 wall posts, especially when we could have gotten it for free through Facebook? External Affairs is charged with formulating options for the ASM website. Let me suggest a simple rule: even if you build it, they won’t come. ASM’s website should be a repository of information, and all outreach should be through other sites and services.

ASM lacks in-house time and expertise on technology issues beyond updating the static website. Electronic outreach is a rapidly evolving field, and is vital to producing the grassroots mobilization ASM prides itself on harnessing. Often, that can be done using existing services, but there are times when it requires more complicated data manipulation. Currently, many in ASM don’t even realize that with some technology help, they could focus more on achieving student goals and less on gruntwork.  Furthermore, many of our vital services are dependant or would be more successful with more technology. The grant submission and tracking application is in need of a rewrite, and we will have to contract that out to DoIT without internal capabilities. The Bookswap as a manual effort has nearly killed our Academic Affairs chair. A fairly simple database, a couple of barcode scanners, and a screen-scraping script could eliminate 90% of the work for the bookswap, while reducing the time students need to spend at the swap to just a few minutes. This would be possible with a fulltime staff member to provide us with technology support.

Finally, it is critical that someone in ASM understand Information Architecture, especially over the course of several years. ASM has virtually no archival institutional memory. Researching the members, material, or actions of previous sessions of ASM is virtually impossible. Even the actions of this years council, finance committee, or SSFC are difficult to discover, unless you happen to know what you are looking for and can get it from the chair or secretary of the appropriate committee. ASM is virtually opaque, even to those who know what they are looking for, because ASM unwittingly deletes information. (For example, find a list of shared governance appointees in 2007.) This isn’t malicious; it’s just the result of not knowing there is a better way. This is a problem for those of us currently serving in ASM, because we wind up repeating history. For anyone outside of ASM and can’t dig around on the server, it means that the information simply does not exist. Furthermore, if Mark Gottlieb’s bill requiring open records in student government passes, ASM could find itself in legal trouble. Therefore, I would include records management as part of the job of this new position, with a particular emphasis on the findability and transparency of the information.  The complete record of the 16th session should be totally available to say the 22nd session.

This position calls for a longer-term commitment, to preserve contacts with other information providers on campus, along with history and procedure within ASM. Admittedly, it is unlikely this position will move forward, as the current climate on campus is not favorable for adding FTEs. I think there may be opportunities for more creative solutions than just asking ODOS to hire another staff person – we could contract through another unit on campus, perhaps DoIT.  We should add a placeholder to the budget and further explore this position this year. Perhaps we will be successful, or perhaps our work will set the stage for the 17th session to take action.

ASM Budget amendment #2: 17th session initiative funding

The motion: ‘Create a line-item for “17th Session Initiatives Fund ’ with a recommendation for “Add to IB”‘

The ASM budget cycle does not line up well with the elected terms of the ASM Student Council. The 16th session of the Student Council will pass a budget, perhaps with some new initiatives, but most of us will not be able to implement anything we propose.  Our budget was mostly written by the 15th session – in fact, 16 percent of our budget was written by the 14th session! Similarly, we are writing the budget for the 17th session and part of the 18th session. This is a problem for ASM – think about the 15th session, and any initiatives they passed. How excited are any of the council members to take them up?

For anything we might want to do in the 16th session that wasn’t budgeted for, our only choice for funding is to shuffle existing funding sources, or deficit spend and trust that sources like the GSSF will run a surplus. ASM runs a fairly tight budget, and truthfully has cut most of our discretionary budget over the past few years, such that we primarily just fund our fulltime staff and fill our event/travel/operations grants. The state raided our reserves, further limiting what we have available.

There is nothing that can be done for the 16th session. We can only do whatever the 15th session in October of 2008 thought we might need. I would like to do better by the 17th session, and recognize that they may have needs that we cannot anticipate. I am therefore proposing that we provide the 17th session with an “Initiatives Fund” line item in our budget. They will be free to use it how they see fit – including not using it at all.

This isn’t really excess spending – if ASM decides it wants to fund some initiative, ASM could budget for it and spend the money the next year.  This simply makes it possible for the originators of an idea to also be the executors of the idea. I hope the 16th session will step up and demonstrate leadership, and make it possible for future ASM councils to better serve their constituents.

ASM Budget Amendment #1: Creative Works fund

The first amendment I will propose on the 14th is simple: ‘Create a line-item for “Creative Works fund’ with a recommendation for “Add to IB”‘

ASM, through the Finance Committee, currently gives grants for travel, for basic student organization operations, and for events. I would like to create a fourth class of grants, one for “Creative Works”.  When I’ve described this to a few people, they’ve said “Oh, an arts endowment”. This is somewhat accurate, but it is meant to fund not just art, but any creative activity that produces an artifact.

Here’s a wide range of what I think is appropriate; it’s not meant to be exhaustive:

– Art pieces (though not performance art pieces)

– Literary works

– Investigative Journalism pieces

– Compilations of Oral Histories

– Plays (though not performances)

– Contributions to Open Source software, ala Google Summer of Code ( http://code.google.com/soc/ )

– Film

– Data sets

– Photography series/essays

– Literature Surveys/Guidebooks

– Musical works  (though not performances)

The key to fund is the production of an artifact, that is, something that will survive the creator’s time on campus. As best we can insist while still being viewpoint-neutral, it should benefit society, and society will need to be able to make maximum use of the work. The guidelines for the fund should insist on the intellectual property created are licensed under some sort of “Creative Commons” agreement, in order to secure that benefit to society.

This is not meant to be a scholarship, which is prohibited by F-50. Instead, it is recognition that these sorts of endeavors enrich campus and society, and the time and materials to create them are not free.

At the moment, I want to start small, and only allocate a fraction of what we currently allocate the rest of the FC’s fund. I would prefer that we use new money, so as not to reduce the Travel/Event/Ops grant pool. It is an experiment, and future councils will need to evaluate its utility to campus.

The Finance Committee should establish criteria for the fund, to be approved by council. Off the top of my head, there should be a strict prohibition on using this for any sort of University credit. Additionally, priority should be given to those who can find matching funds. This is considerably easier to do when you’ve got the first half of your funding lined up, so ASM should not be afraid to be the first to step up, and enable applicants to go to other funding sources and say “Yes, I’ve got half of my funding guaranteed.” Additionally, I think there is significant opportunity to find matching funding from WARF, the WAA, or the UW Foundation, if ASM commits to this funding and puts its money on the table first.

For most students, college is the first time in their lives that they assembled all of the skills necessary to produce something truly of value. It is also a time when they are introduced to entirely new ideas and ways of thinking, and when their creative impulses and enthusiasm are at their maximum.  There is no better time to harness this energy. This fund is truly the Wisconsin Idea in action, and I hope other council members will support it.

New funding source for housing programs: my BH piece

[This was my BH column for October 1st. Comments are off here, please comment at the original]

The technorati who brought you the phrase “Web 2.0” are back with a new one: “Government 2.0.” A core idea of Gov 2.0 is a rejection of what Donald Kettl calls “Vending Machine Government” — you put tax money in and get services out, and are limited to kicking and cursing the machine when it doesn’t work. Others talk about how collective action should be more than collective complaining.

Of course, we don’t need new technology to make this happen. A great example of collective action has been the series of meetings to create a “People’s Vision for Affordable Housing.” The vision is motivated by a community frustration surrounding the struggle to secure basic necessities like shelter, aided by the slow pace of the city committee process in producing workable ideas. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, after last year’s conclusion of the inclusionary zoning effort, created a new committee to explore new affordable housing strategies for Madison. Nine months later — five months after it was due to report back — the committee has met only four times and has yet to discuss a single improvement. Even ASM moves faster than that.

The People’s Vision aims to give the Housing Diversity Committee a list of priority problem areas and potential solutions. It’s been some of the most inspirational time I’ve ever spent in a meeting room. The problems and solutions we’re considering run the gamut from helping the visibility homeless get off the streets to helping the most well-off of renters and homeowners. At the end of a meeting, it really feels like solutions are closer and it wasn’t a waste of two hours.

One of the issues I’m most interested in seeing addressed is making the cash flow of renters a bit easier. When renting an apartment, a renter may have to provide a security deposit upfront. For people living paycheck to paycheck, this can be a significant challenge, especially if they already have a security deposit tied up in their existing apartment. They may eventually have the money, but not right when they need it. This can be addressed through a loan fund, where the city pays the security deposit upfront and the tenant pays the city back. Madison has a small program like this, as does Iowa City, Iowa, through a private provider.

At the end of the lease term, landlords have to give the security deposit back, so they can’t do anything with the money except put it in short-term investments. For the small landlords, which are the vast majority of landlords in Madison, this amounts to a couple of extra dollars a year. The landlord only truly needs the security deposit in the case where they’re going to make a deduction, and even then, usually not the entire amount. In fact, the full amount may never actually need to exist.

Instead of a loan program, what if the city only gave the landlord the amount for damages at the end? The individual landlords wouldn’t care because they weren’t earning much anyway, but the city could earn a fair amount of money on the collective interest.

Now, take it one step even further and imagine if all security deposits went through this program. Using back-of-the-envelope numbers, there are at least 55,000 rental units in Madison, each with about $500 of security deposit. That’s $27 million, and the real numbers could be much higher. Using a conservative 4 percent return, that could be $1.1 million a year in new money for the city. It doesn’t raise taxes on anyone, except perhaps the very large management companies like Madison Property Management, who no longer get a free loan from their tenants. It just makes existing money work smarter. Even subtracting the 0.75 percent interest landlords are required to pay tenants, the city would still come out ahead. This could easily be expanded to cover the whole county since housing is truly a regional issue.

It’s a simple program; the city Treasurer’s Office could easily run it electronically without much additional staff. They already run a comparably-sized program with property taxes. It’s a win for students, and all renters, because security deposits would be handled uniformly and, according to state law, without having to hope your landlord gets it right or doesn’t go bankrupt. Renters would also benefit from transferring their security deposit straight from one apartment to the next, without having to temporarily have enough money for two security deposits. Finally, everyone wins because we could fund things that we know would help but there just hasn’t been the money to do, like affordable housing and building inspectors.

Will this be part of the People’s Vision? I don’t know. The next meeting of the group is Oct. 22 at 5:30 p.m. at Madison Central Library. I’m going to make my case, and if you’ve got ideas, come and take action.