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 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.