County tax rate lower; revenue will rise

By JAMES KATES / Capstone Editor

The robust real-estate market in Jefferson County is pushing property values up, meaning that the county can lower its tax rate while still managing to collect a bit more in tax revenue.

The County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday got its first look at the proposed county budget for 2019. The county’s total tax levy will be about $29,650,000, up about $325,000 from 2018.

The county’s tax rate will fall by 16 cents per $1,000 of equalized valuation, about a 4 percent drop from 2018.

After peaking at 4.392 mills in 2015, the proposed countywide tax rate for 2019 is 3.991 mills, meaning that the county property tax on a home assessed at $150,000 would be $598.65.

Overall, the county is looking at spending just over $81 million, as compared with $72.3 million this year. That sharp increase comes from several one-time projects funded mostly by state and federal dollars.

The county’s only debt is $14.2 million remaining on the new highway shop on County Highway W on the outskirts of Jefferson.

“Structurally, we’re in pretty good shape,” County Board Chair Jim Schroeder told reporters before the meeting.

Some counties take on debt to pay for road maintenance, “but that’s a death spiral,” Schroeder added. “We could have gone on a spending spree, but we haven’t.”

Special items proposed for 2019 include road work on County Highways A and B, improvements to the law-enforcement and emergency communication system, recreation trail construction and reclamation of the old highway shop site off Puerner Street in Jefferson for new development.

The county hopes to collect $6.325 million on its 0.5 percent sales tax in 2019, possibly more if the economy keeps humming and residents have discretionary income, County Administrator Ben Wehmeier said.

A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held at the County Board’s meeting Oct. 23 at the courthouse, beginning at 7 p.m. The full budget document is available at the county’s Web site, www.jeffersoncountywi.gov.

In the meantime, supervisors may propose budget amendments in writing or at meetings. Final approval of the budget is slated for the County Board meeting on Nov. 13.

In other action Tuesday:

  • Supervisors voted to sell the old Highway Department satellite shop in Lake Mills to Chandler White, doing business as CRW Co. LLC, for $60,000.
  • “Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares.” That hit song by Travis Tritt sums up the county’s response to a woman who sought a refund after the country music star’s July 13 show at the Jefferson County Fair was canceled due to bad weather. The county denied a claim of $96.40 by Jeanne Vonachen, who had VIP seats for the concert. A disclaimer on the tickets stated that no refunds would be given for adverse weather.
  • The board approved a resolution declaring Oct. 7-13 as National 4-H Week in Jefferson County.
  • Supervisors approved the spending of $887,234.84 for 12 Model International HV613 quad-axle trucks from Lakeside International and $1,187,520 for equipment and set-up for those trucks from Monroe Truck Equipment. The trucks will allow the Highway Department to spread brine, rather than rock salt, on winter roads, which is expected to save money.
  • The county recorded a resolution in remembrance of former County Supervisor Leon Zimdars, who died Aug. 29 at the age of 97.

 

Ruffians, beware! City may boost fines

By JAMES KATES / Capstone Editor

The Whitewater Common Council is poised to bring the hammer down on a variety of misbehavior in the city – or maybe not, and in any case not quite yet.

The council on Tuesday voted to table a proposed ordinance that would have set a fine of $1,000 for anyone damaging a designated city landmark. The move followed a decision in September to delay action on raising fines for a host of offenses, from obstructing an officer to using improper identification.

The council acted after member Lynn Binnie said a $1,000 fine for landmarks damage could have “unintended consequences.” Besides highly visible publicly owned properties such as Birge Fountain, city-designated landmarks include about a dozen private homes.

Binnie wondered whether a misguided reveler might end up facing a hefty fine for “knocking over a birdbath” outside a landmark home. City Attorney Wallace McDonell said police have the option of charging only disorderly conduct for a small offense such as that.

Patricia Blackmer, who owns a landmark house at 445 W. Center St., told the council that “We have had significant damage to our property. … This ordinance needs to go forward.”

However, some council members questioned the fairness of higher fines for damage only to certain private homes. Members Jimmy Schulgit and Stephanie Vander Pas voiced doubts over whether such an ordinance would deter vandals.

The current fine for property damage is $450 to $700, plus restitution for repairs, council members said.

Council members agreed to look into what other cities are doing about vandalism issues before moving forward. City Manager Cameron Clapper said the matter probably would be delayed until after approval of the city budget at the end of November.

2019 budget unveiled

As revealed by Clapper on Tuesday, the 2019 city budget proposes general-fund spending of $9,658,650, up about $344,000 from the current year. Clapper said most of that extra money was found by eliminating inefficiencies in city spending.

The total city budget, including services such as sewer and water that are paid for with user charges, would be $26,259,403.

On a home assessed at $150,000, the 2019 budget would impose a city tax of $985.56, an increase of $75, within Walworth County; and $973.83, an increase of $53, within the Jefferson County portion of the city.

Clapper noted that limits on state shared revenue are forcing the city to rely more on the property tax to support local services. The tax levy has risen about 3 percent a year over the last decade, a pace faster than overall spending has gone up.

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which is exempt from property taxes, makes a payment to the city each year for municipal services. The payment in 2019 will be $281,417, which covers only about 38 percent of the actual cost of services provided to the university, Clapper said.

Major projects in the works for 2019 include Milwaukee Street reconstruction, drawdown and dredging of Cravath Lake, and street-light repair and updates with energy-efficient LED fixtures.

The board’s Finance Committee will review the budget in open meetings on Oct. 11 and 18 at 6 p.m., and the full Common Council will examine the plan at its meetings Nov. 8 and 20 at 6:30, with final approval scheduled at that last meeting.

In other action Tuesday:

  • Clapper presented organizers of the annual CROP Walk with a proclamation recognizing their efforts. The CROP Walk, to be held Saturday, Oct. 6, raises money to fight hunger in Whitewater and around the world.
  • The council approved an ordinance banning the sale of electronic cigarette “vaping” devices to minors and prohibiting minors from possessing such devices.
  • Council members approved a ban on parking from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. on the west side of Church Street from West Center Street to West Forest Avenue. Area residents have complained of noise and littering in the area after bar time.
  • The council approved a bid of $38,689 from F.J.A. Christiansen Roofing to replace the roof of Building 200 at the wastewater treatment plant.

 

Public hearing is simple, budget is not

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

The public hearing on the 2018 Jefferson County budget may have been a humdrum affair, but several months of hard work went into the document that is likely to be approved without controversy next month.

No one showed up Tuesday to speak to the Jefferson County Board about the 2018 spending plan. That’s not surprising, given that state spending limits have put some pretty tight constraints on what county supervisors can do in this area.

“We don’t have a lot of wiggle room, and we don’t have a lot of dissension over our spending priorities,” County Board Chair Jim Schroeder told reporters before the meeting.

Overall, the budget calls for spending $72.3 million in 2018. The bulk of that money goes to the Sheriff’s Department (including the County Jail), the Human Services Department and the Highway Department.

The countywide tax levy will be $27.4 million. The tax rate is set at 4.1606 mills, meaning the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 would pay $416 in property taxes to the county.

Homeowners in parts of the county served by the county Health Department (as opposed to city health departments) and/or local library systems would pay some additional property taxes, bringing the total levy to $29.3 million.

The rest of the budget comes from state and federal money, fines, fees and a countywide sales tax of 0.5 percent.

The total value of taxable property – residential, commercial and industrial – in Jefferson County is about $6.6 billion, which is actually less than it was in 2009. Figures show that the financial crisis of 2007-’08 took a toll on real-estate values, which are only now returning to their former levels.

Because wages and other expenses have risen, the county has had to raise its tax rate, which was 3.5862 mills in 2009 before hitting a high of 4.3917 mills in 2015. The mill rate since has gone down slightly as property values have recovered.

County Supervisor Dick Jones, who is chair of the board’s Finance Committee, told reporters that the county tries to manage its finances conservatively. It has three months of working reserves on hand, plus contingency funds for expenses such as employee retirement payouts.

State laws permit the county to raise taxes based only on new construction, which amounted to a tax increase of about $290,000 for 2018, Jones said.

“Our spending is essentially flat,” Schroeder told reporters. “Fortunately in my time here we have not had to cut services.”

County officials who are finalizing a new strategic plan have concluded that the only way for the county to continue providing a full range of services is through economic growth, which will generate new tax revenue, he said.

“The county has been seen as anti-development” because of its emphasis on preservation of farmland and natural spaces, he said. More “balance” is needed between agriculture and industry to sustain growth, he added.

To that end, a new nonprofit organization – the Glacial Heritage Development Partnership – has set out to raise several million dollars to promote development in the county, Schroeder said.

In other budget outlays, about $1.1 million is allocated to debt service in 2018. That money will be used to pay down construction bonds that were issued to build the county’s highway shop on Highway W on the outskirts of Jefferson.

The county clerk’s office will spend more in 2018 – nearly $505,000, up from $333,000 in 2017. The money will go toward buying new voting machines and other expenses associated with the November 2018 gubernatorial and congressional elections.

One area of strain on the budget has been the opioid addiction crisis, which has put pressure on courts, child support enforcement, law enforcement and human services, Jones said.

Schroeder noted that county supervisors voted in September to join a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies being brought by the Wisconsin Counties Association. The lawsuit seeks compensation to help counties prevent and treat addiction.

Marc Devries, the county’s new finance director, told supervisors Tuesday that they still could submit amendments to the budget. Any amendments will be weighed by the Finance Committee before being forwarded to the full County Board.

The board is expected to give final approval to the 2018 budget at its meeting Nov. 14.

 

 

 

Amid outcry, UWW explains parking plan

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater rolled out its top brass Tuesday to explain its controversial new parking policy and to mend fences with the city’s Common Council.

Chancellor Beverly Kopper, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs Grace Crickette and UWW Police Chief Matt Kiederlen assured the council that the university does not want to hurt the “town and gown” relationship with the new plan, which requires UWW permits for parking on Prince and Prairie streets.

Citizens have complained that the plan deprives them of parking spaces near UWW and imposes “double taxation” for anyone who parks on streets that already are paid for in the city budget.

“Our parking assets are getting more and more stretched,” Kiederlen said, noting that the university will lose an additional 200 parking spaces in Lot 9, on Warhawk Drive near the Kachel Fieldhouse, when construction of a new residence hall begins.

Lots on the south side of campus routinely are 90 percent filled on weekdays, Kiederlen said. He added that the university is trying to ease the parking crunch by, among other things, allowing students with north-side commuter stickers to park anywhere on campus after 5 p.m.

Crickette explained that UWW wants its parking operation to be “self-sustaining” so the university can devote its money to its core mission of educating students.

The cost of most annual parking permits went up $20 this year. Daily permits rose from $3 to $5, and parking tickets went from $15 to $25.

UWW is paying the city $45,000 a year for rights to control the spaces on Prince and Prairie streets, and is reaping at most $30,000 a year in revenue from the related permits, Crickette said. Both she and Kiederlen said parking fines are not a moneymaking scheme but are meant to ensure that the rules are followed.

No immediate action was taken, but the UWW officials and the council indicated they were open to future talks to change the agreement. Council member Stephanie Goettl asked that the matter be placed on a future council agenda for possible action.

City budget

In other business Tuesday, City Manager Cameron Clapper presented a first look at the proposed 2018 city budget, which calls for spending about $30,000 less than this year.

The budget – which still is subject to committee meetings, a public hearing and approval by the Common Council – envisions spending of $9,174,846 in 2018, compared with $9,204,722 in 2017.

About half that money is intergovernmental revenue, mostly from the State of Wisconsin, and about 37 percent comes from property taxes. The rest comes mostly from fines and fees.

City employees will get a wage increase of 1.5 percent, but they will have to pay more for health insurance, covering 15 percent of the cost of coverage as opposed to 12 percent currently.

Clapper told the council that the budget picture is not as smooth as it might first appear.

“To the average person there is not much evidence of financial trouble,” but holes are being plugged with money that really should be set aside for long-term maintenance, he said.

In the long term, the city is hamstrung by state revenue caps that sharply limit increases in property taxes, Clapper said.

He said the city must look to alternate revenue sources, such as economic growth that would generate more tax revenue. The city’s news financial consultant, Ehlers & Associates, will help with planning, he said.

After a series of Finance Committee meetings on Thursday nights, the full budget will be presented to the council at its Nov. 7 meeting. A public hearing and a vote of approval are set for the meeting on Nov. 21.

Landmarks Commission

Also on Tuesday, a protest outside the Municipal Building portended a possibly explosive debate about designation of city landmarks, but the tension fizzled as soon as the issue was more fully explained.

Voting 6-0 with member Carol McCormick absent, the council approved an ordinance proposed by member Christopher Grady that would require the city Landmarks Commission to notify the city manager and Common Council when considering conferring landmark status on any city-owned property.

Grady explained that the Common Council had been caught off guard when the Landmarks Commission declared the city-owned Walton Oaks Park a landmark in August.

Grady said landmark status might impose some excessive costs on the city if, for example, a landmark was destroyed in a storm and the city was required to rebuild it.

Other council members expressed skepticism about this concern but voted for the ordinance because they said it would make the designation process more open and clear.

A second ordinance introduced by Grady would have allowed the council to strip landmark status from any city-owned property. That ordinance failed. Grady moved for its adoption, but his motion was not seconded.

Before the meeting, about 20 protesters had gathered outside the Municipal Building with signs reading “Protect Cultural History” and “Save Our Landmarks.”

 

County Board welcomes new judge

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors met the county’s new circuit judge on Tuesday, though the jurist is hardly a stranger here.

Robert F. Dehring is joining the Circuit Court as judge of Branch 3 on April 1. He was appointed by Gov. Scott Walker to succeed Judge David Wambach, who has retired.

Dehring, a native of southeast Wisconsin, came to Jefferson County to work in the corporation counsel’s office in 2009. He became a part-time court commissioner in 2010 and later held that job full-time in Waukesha County.

Addressing board members, Dehring said he had traveled throughout the county to meet with elected officials at the town, village and city level.

He and his wife are building a home in Ixonia.

“As a judge it’s my plan to increase access to justice at the courthouse” while controlling costs, he said, assuring board members that “it’s possible to do more with less.”

Dehring began practicing law in 2003. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a law degree from Marquette University.

Strategic Plan consultant

Also on Tuesday, the board reviewed details on a Brookfiled consulting firm that has been chosen to help with the county’s new strategic plan.

The Chamness Group of Brookfield will help write the plan at a cost between $15,000 and $20,000, County Administrator Ben Wehmeier said. The last plan was done in 2010.

The plan is a “big-thinking initiative” that lays out the county’s top priorities in a time of increasing costs and tight limits on any new taxes, County Board Chair Jim Schroeder told reporters before the meeting.

Chamness will be reaching out to county supervisors and staff for their input in the weeks and months ahead, Schroeder added. Public comment also will be sought, with the goal of completing the plan by August.

The Chamness Group has 29 years of planning experience, including recent projects with Calumet County and the Wisconsin Counties Association.

In other action Tuesday, the board:

— Received the resignation of Tim Smith, county supervisor from District 29, which encompasses part of the city of Fort Atkinson. Smith said personal responsibilities had made it impossible for him to continue in the job. Schroeder said three people had applied for the vacancy, and he promised to name a successor by next month, subject to the County Board’s approval.

— Heard the annual report from Staci Hoffman, register of deeds. Hoffman said a robust real-estate market had boosted fee income for handling deeds, and the office was able to contribute more than $305,000 to the county’s general fund in 2016.

— Heard from Barb Frank, the county clerk. Frank told board members that her office had begun online voter registration in 2016. The office oversaw four elections, including the November 2016 presidential contest, and conducted a recount of the presidential ballots in December.

— Received a tally of per-diem payments to County Board members. Total payments have been trending downward since 2011. Board members receive a salary of $55 per month and are paid $55 per meeting attended. Aside from Schroeder, who was paid $13,749.03 in salary and per-diems in 2016, payments to board members ranged from about $2,200 to about $6,500.

— Authorized the use of $85,000 from the Human Services Department budget originally earmarked for a roofing job to be used toward upgrading alarm systems in Human Services buildings. The roof of the main Human Services Building is holding up better than expected and may not need replacing for another five years, officials said.

‘Splash’ canceled, but party will go on

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

Trucker-Splash-WhiteBlueRed_1024x1024Spring Splash is officially “canceled,” but Whitewater city officials acknowledge that the annual celebration will occur again April 29.

They aren’t exactly looking forward to the party.

In a sometimes acrimonious meeting Tuesday, the Whitewater Common Council debated how to prepare for and respond to the celebration, which last year resulted in vandalism, trespassing, underage drinking and public drunkenness.

The chief promoters of last year’s event, Kurt Patrick of Pumpers and Mitchell’s Tavern and Steve Farina of Wisconsin Red, will not participate. Whitewater officials persuaded them that sponsoring the event was a bad idea, City Attorney Wallace O’Donell said.

Seeking to mend fences, the city issued a press release this past Saturday stating that the promoters were not responsible for the mayhem that occurred after the 2016 party.

Wisconsin Red is an event-promotion company that stages parties and sells souvenir merchandise. It put on a DJ party on Saturday afternoon at last year’s Spring Splash. It had no connection to the numerous parties afterward and did not encourage the public misconduct that flared Saturday night into early Sunday, some council members noted.

Still, the aftermath of the 2016 event “was like the Wild West in Whitewater,” O’Donell said.

Sponsors or not, many people are planning to celebrate again on the last Saturday in April. Word already is circulating on social media, and the Police Department expects University of Wisconsin-Whitewater students and others to stage house parties that likely will spill onto the streets.

“How nobody died last year is a gift,” Police Chief Lisa Otterbacher told council members. She warned them that the city would be legally responsible for injuries caused to any law-enforcement officers from other communities who respond to mutual-aid calls.

City Manager Cameron Clapper said the city is not against anyone having a good time, but that officials must make sure that citizens enjoy themselves legally and safely.

Last year’s event seemed calculated “to get as many people as possible to do a lot of crazy, dangerous things,” Clapper said. “We want to discourage that.”

Most of the trouble was caused by out-of-town visitors, he added.

Still, Council Member Stephanie Goettl complained that other members appeared to be bashing UWW students. She said the city’s attitude could spark a backlash that would only increase this year’s troubles.

“This has been the most blatantly anti-student discussion I have ever heard,” said Goettl, who joined the council as a 20-year-old UWW undergraduate and now is studying for a master’s degree in business.

“This is not anti-student,” shot back Council Member Christopher Grady. “It’s anti-mob.”

Otterbacher said the Police Department has consulted other agencies, especially the Madison police, who deal with that city’s annual Halloween festivities and the Mifflin Street Block Party. UW-Whitewater authorities will discourage out-of-town visitors from staying overnight that Friday and Saturday in residence halls, she said.

In response to pointed questioning from citizen Larry Kachel, whose family is Whitewater’s largest private landlord, she said the city would set up treatment stations for intoxicated people and distribute ‘no trespassing’ signs to help property owners keep wayward partygoers out of their yards.

Police dog sold

Also on Tuesday, the Common Council voted to sell the city’s police dog, a black Labrador named Boomer, to his handler, former Officer Joseph Matteson, for $3,500.

Had the dog been of retirement age, Matteson could have bought him for $1, which is standard practice in such cases. But Boomer will retire in mid-career. Matteson trained with Boomer and was his handler since May of 2014.

Matteson is leaving the community, and his family will own Boomer as a pet. The sale agreement specifies that Boomer cannot be used again as a police dog.

Otterbacher acknowledged that the sale might upset the community donors who raised money for Boomer’s purchase and training. But there is no guarantee that Boomer would respond well to another handler, she told the council.

“This is an opportunity to start over with a new canine and a new handler,” she said. Trying to retrain Boomer with a new handler might fail because “dogs are very loyal,” she said.

Matteson spent 14 years with the police force and was an “outstanding law enforcement officer,” Otterbacher said.

Council members unanimously approved the sale but voiced hope that the city could reach a legal agreement – or at least an informal understanding – with any future handlers to prevent police dogs’ service from being cut short.

Otterbacher said she would send letters to the 100-plus donors who paid for Boomer to explain the situation, because “this program would not be here without them.”

In other action Tuesday, the council:

  • Was introduced to Kristin Mickelson, the city’s new public relations and communications manager. Mickelson, a 2008 UW-Whitewater graduate, is a Janesville native who formerly worked in communications and marketing for Blain’s Farm and Fleet.
  • Agreed to study the idea of placing speed bumps at the intersection of Cherry and North streets, the site of several recent accidents.
  • Approved the borrowing of $287,000, equally split between First Citizens Bank and Commercial Bank, for the purchase of a new ambulance.
  • Approved the 2017 pay plan, which will give 1 percent cost-of-living increases to city employees who are already at the top pay level for their positions. Under the plan, Clapper, who is the city’s highest-paid employee, will earn $94,572 this year. The police chief will be paid $92,334.

 

 

County says ‘no’ to road claims

BY JAMES KATES / The Capstone

The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday denied more than $13,000 in claims for damage to motor vehicles blamed on county road work, but not before a spirited discussion on whether the county has a “moral obligation” to make things right.

On a voice vote, supervisors opted to forward the claims to the county’s insurer, Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance Co. In nine claims, motorists had asked the county to pay for damage caused by seal coat chips or fresh oil and tar on roads.

Corporation Counsel J. Blair Ward told supervisors that the county has “discretionary immunity” against the claims and can deny any or all of them. Parties who are denied payment can sue, but they must do so within six months.

In any event, motorists can still present any evidence they wish to the insurance company to show that the county was at fault, Ward said.

Supervisor Greg David and a few others said warning signage along some roads was missing or inadequate, allowing motorists to travel too fast and kick up debris.

In particular, they cited Ski Slide Road in the Town of Ixonia, where damage from fresh tar on a Dodge Ram truck generated the largest claim, for $6,687.76.

“I am wondering if we are not culpable for some of that” damage, David said. He asked that the claims be sent back to the Finance Committee for further consideration, but that motion was rejected on a 20-6 vote.

Supervisor Dick Schultz said the county had to be wary of motorists’ claims.

“There is some personal responsibility” for drivers to slow down on roads that are being resurfaced, Schultz said. “I’m concerned that if we waffle on this, we are opening a can of worms for our Highway Department. … I don’t think we can send that message.”

In another cautionary note on the legal front, Ward told supervisors to follow the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law very carefully to avoid even inadvertent violations that could lead to fines.

Ward’s warning stemmed from a case in Winnebago County, where members of two county committees illegally attended meetings of the Courthouse Security Committee for about four years. The Wisconsin Department of Justice told Winnebago County supervisors the practice was illegal, but it did not issue fines or take other legal action.

Supervisors must give 24 hours’ public notice – even if they are attending meetings in which they are not directly involved – if their presence might constitute a quorum of any committee, Ward said. In most cases, a quorum would be three members of a five-member committee.

If three members of a committee show up and no notice has been given, “someone needs to leave,” Ward said.

The law does not apply to social gatherings, but it does apply to any meeting of an educational nature, such as the annual conference of the Wisconsin Counties Association, he added.

In other action Tuesday:

  • Board Chairman Jim Schroeder told reporters before the meeting that the county is actively seeking a representative for District 24, which is composed almost entirely of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater residence halls and other student housing. Finding students to run for election has been a perennial problem, and the county may consider redrawing the district to include some single-family homes, Schroeder said. Anyone interested in being appointed in the interim should contact the county.
  • Schroeder shared a letter from the Government Finance Officers Association stating that the county had qualified for a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for 2015.
  • Supervisors approved an increase, from $25,000 to $100,000 per year, in the threshold at which contractors with the Human Services Department must submit a certified financial and compliance audit. State law specifies the $25,000 threshold but says that limit may be raised if the county determines that it would be “burdensome” to small contractors.
  • Schroeder noted that the county budget will be voted on at the board’s meeting on Nov. 14. That meeting is on a Monday, instead of the usual Tuesday.

 

City lockbox law is delayed again

security-padlockBy JAMES KATES / The Capstone

The Whitewater Common Council has again delayed, and may end up killing, a controversial lockbox ordinance after yet another dust-up on the issue Tuesday night.

Council members voted to hold a first reading of a revised lockbox plan at their meeting Nov. 1. The move came after a council task force met Monday to consider the plan and council members asked City Attorney Wallace McDonell to draw up a new ordinance.

More than 200 businesses, churches and apartment buildings in Whitewater already have lockboxes, although they are not yet required by law. The boxes hold building keys and allow emergency responders to enter the buildings after police access the boxes using keys and entry codes.

Firefighters will break into buildings that are obviously burning, but nearly half the calls they get come from carbon-monoxide alarms, reports of gas leaks, or fire alarms that may or may not be malfunctioning, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Higgins told the council.

“We can do a lot to save those buildings if we can get inside them,” Higgins added.

However, Fire Chief Don Gregoire revealed during questioning that the Fire Department already has the legal authority to order building owners to install lockboxes. That remark led City Manager Cameron Clapper and others to wonder whether a city ordinance was even necessary.

The council passed a lockbox ordinance in 2015 and approved a narrowed version of the law on Sept. 6 after numerous complaints. Enforcement of the law, including possible fines for noncompliance, has been held in abeyance as the council reworks the ordinance.

Council member Lynn Binnie said the task force met Monday to address some concerns with the law, such as the lack of an electronic “audit trail” that shows who has accessed the boxes.

Property owners have objected to the cost of the boxes and questioned who will be legally liable for any misuse. Some have even said that by giving police access to their buildings, the boxes may violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unlawful search and seizure.

The task force that met Monday tried to address these concerns by, among other things, specifying that the boxes could be placed as high as nine feet above the street or sidewalk to discourage vandalism.

Council member Stephanie Goettl said she was unaware of the Monday meeting and said it “looks like an 11th-hour attempt to completely change the ordinance.”

Notice of the meeting was provided as required by law, retorted council member James Allen, who interrupted Goettl’s complaint by telling her: “You’re grandstanding.”

The council did vote to spend $19,189 to purchase “master boxes” from the Knox Box Co. that will hold the master keys used by police and will provide an audit trail when the keys are used.

Budget presented

Also on Tuesday, the Common Council got its first look at the proposed city budget for 2017.

The $9.2 million budget is 5.89 percent less than the city’s spending for 2016, because the Whitewater Fire Department has been spun off as a nonprofit entity whose costs are no longer reflected in the budget.

The property-tax levy will rise to $2,593,207, an increase of $47,157, or about 1.8 percent. The remainder of the city’s money comes mostly from intergovernmental revenue, including state shared revenue and payments from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in lieu of property taxes.

Research done in 2015 by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance puts Whitewater’s spending per capita at $413.31, well below the mean of $538.69 for cities its size, Clapper told council members.

The proposed budget is on the city’s Web site at www.whitewater-wi.gov. The target date for a public hearing and approval of the budget is Nov. 15.

In other action Tuesday, the Common Council:

  • Heard from Clapper about the possibility of changing the operating hours for the Municipal Building. Clapper suggested that an earlier start time, such as 7:30 a.m., would allow city employees to finish work earlier and might be a way to reward employees without spending extra money. Council members’ reactions were mixed, with some saying that opportunities for flexible scheduling already exist.
  • Reviewed a revised policy on large public events from the city Parks and Recreation Board. The policy is meant to regulate commercial events such as Spring Splash, which triggered numerous complaints from citizens about noise and litter earlier this year.
  • Heard a presentation from Whitewater Unified School District officials on a $23.5 million school building and improvement referendum that will go to the voters on Nov. 8. If approved, the plan would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $18 a year in additional property taxes. The money will be used to provide better security, maintenance and instructional spaces at the district’s three elementary schools, the middle school and the high school.

Council looks at library plan

By JAMES KATES / Capstone Managing Editor

Whitewater Common Council members agreed Tuesday to explore a public/private partnership that could help build a new Whitewater Public Library.

The board voted to reach out to Troy J. Hoekstra of United Development Solutions, which recently broke ground for a hotel in Platteville that will include space for a library.

Under such a deal – which in Whitewater is only in the exploratory phase – the developer would build the project, lease about 25,000 square feet to the library for a seven-year term, then donate the space to the library after that.

As envisioned, the deal might cost the city about $4 million for a library that otherwise would cost $7 million to $8 million, City Manager Cameron Clapper said. The city’s cost would include initial funding of about $2.5 million and annual lease payments of about $250,000, Clapper told the council.

The incentive for the developer is the New Markets Tax Credits program, under which companies get federal tax breaks to build projects that create jobs in areas with comparatively weak economies.

The credits pay out over seven years, and investors would get a tax write-off by donating the space to the city afterward, Clapper said.

Stacey Lunsford, Irvin L. Young Memorial Library director since 2001, said the plan would meet the library’s space needs. A suitable city-funded expansion at the library’s current location, 431 W. Center St., would cost $10 million, which is beyond the city’s means, Lunsford said.

Hoekstra’s company wants to put the new project on Main Street near the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus, Lunsford told the council.

Some councilmembers, including Stephanie Goettl, questioned whether a proper location was available and whether the requirement for donation of the space after seven years could be made legally binding.

But Councilmember Christopher Grady said it was up to Hoekstra – or any other qualified developer – to perform “due diligence” to find a site and draft the agreement. Once that is done, the city can decide whether to move forward.

“I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t want to approach this with an open mind,” Councilmember Lynn Binnie added.

In other action Tuesday, the council:

  • Agreed to invite consulting firm Baker Tilly to make a presentation on a waste holding facility that would be added to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. The 25,000-gallon facility would accommodate high-strength waste that could be used to produce methane gas that the city could use in place of natural gas.

Clapper told the council that Baker Tilly could secure private investment in the facility, which would reduce the city’s up-front costs and long-term risk. Baker Tilly is confident that the project “is feasible, as are we,” Clapper said.

The council ultimately voted to reject plans that would have had the city build the $400,000 facility on its own.

Council President Patrick Singer wondered whether “ratepayers’ money might better be spent on some of the more urgent items” on the wastewater plant’s long list of needs.

  • Rejected a claim of $4,199.84 for sewer backup damage at 351 S. Summit St. The city was unaware of any blockages in the system prior to heavy rainfall last November and therefore is not liable for the damage that resulted, city staff said.
  • Voted to hold its April 19 meeting at UW-Whitewater’s University Center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zoning battle ignites county debate

road-workBy JAMES KATES / Capstone Staff

Jefferson County supervisors took the rare step of overruling their own Planning and Zoning Committee on Tuesday after a sometimes-heated hearing on a family-owned business in the Town of Lake Mills.

On a 3-24 vote, the County Board rejected a resolution that would have denied a conditional use permit for Philip and Sandra Bittorf’s business, Mid-State Traffic Control. The vote effectively orders the Zoning Committee to revise and resubmit the family’s request, according to county Corporation Counsel J. Blair Ward.

The revised permit, if approved by the full County Board, will rezone 3.2 acres of the family’s 40-acre property on Stoney Creek Road from A-1 Exclusive Agricultural to A-2 Agricultural and Rural Business. The family will use three existing buildings at the site to house light trucks and equipment such as traffic signs, barricades and orange construction barrels.

The Bittorfs, whose business previously was based in Dane County, moved to the Stoney Creek Road property in March. After being told their business might violate zoning, they applied for the conditional use permit, which was approved by the Town of Lake Mills in August.

At a hearing in September, the county’s Planning and Zoning Committee heard from several speakers opposed to the plan. No one except Philip Bittorf and an attorney for the family spoke in favor. The committee rejected the permit.

Since then, however, the Bittorfs have rallied the support of neighbors, many of whom showed up for the County Board meeting Tuesday. Twelve citizens spoke in favor of the Bittorfs and one against.

“I am so hurt … by the way things are going in our nice small neighborhood,” said Karen Battist, referring to the continued opposition to the business from some people along the road. “Let’s get real. This is foolish, and I do support the Bittorfs.”

Tyler Wilkinson, an attorney for the family, noted that Stoney Creek Road is maintained by the Town of Lake Mills, which had expressed no concerns over the small increase in traffic. Employees typically keep the company’s trucks at their homes during the week and visit the property only to pick up equipment, he said.

“The work does not happen at the property,” Wilkinson told the board. “The work happens at the job site.”

Attorney Jay Smith, representing four couples who oppose the rezoning, said his clients still had concerns about truck traffic, noise and safety.

To say the Bittorfs’ business is related to agriculture is “a stretch at best,” Smith said. “We think the business is being mischaracterized. It’s more like a shipping and logistics business.”

Steve Nass, the chairman of the Zoning Committee, said the panel had been caught off-guard by the sudden shift in public sentiment. He expressed hope that, in future situations, neighbors could get together and work out their differences before governments had to be involved.

Supervisor Greg David, another member of the zoning panel, noted that the committee was not supposed to vote based on whether petitioners such as the Bittorfs were “nice people” or whether their plans would create jobs.

“It’s not our job to support business,” David said. “It’s our job to follow the zoning ordinance as enacted by this county.”

The revised permit could restrict operating hours or other aspects of the business to minimize disruption. Supervisors also noted that the speed limit on the road might be reset from 45 mph to 35 mph for safety.

In other action Tuesday, the County Board:

• Heard exactly zero public comments on the proposed 2016 Jefferson County budget. No one showed up to speak about the plan, which includes an overall tax levy of about $28.6 million.

The levy includes just over $1.1 million for debt service, to help pay for the county Highway Department’s new shop in Jefferson and satellite facilities in Lake Mills and Concord.

One bright spot in the budget is an expected $200,000 increase in the county’s take from its half-percent sales tax. County Administrator Benjamin Wehmeier attributed the increase to lower gas prices, which help spur consumer spending.

The County Board is slated to vote on the budget at its Nov. 10 meeting.

• Heard from Henry Gibbemeyer, the first graduate of the county’s Alcohol Treatment Court.

Gibbemeyer, who was facing a prison term for his fifth OWI, instead enrolled in the new court, which provides intensive monitoring, treatment and supervision. He spent a year in the program, making 17 court appearances in the process.

“I’ve been clean and sober for over 18 months. This program is a firm but fair one,” Gibbemeyer told the board, which responded with applause.

• Celebrated the launch of Get Connected, a Web site that helps link potential volunteers with service opportunities in Jefferson County and Whitewater.

The site, run by the county and the local United Way, is at http://www.volunteermain.com.