400 Block: long night’s journey into day…

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We didn’t finish our Wausau City Council meeting Tuesday until around 10:45 p.m., but when the dust had cleared, the plan to improve the 400 block had passed 8-4. That was a better margin than I expected and much better than the votes I was mentally trying to count just a few weeks ago. The supporters who showed up and contacted their representatives deserve a lot of credit.

There has been much discussion about the appropriate level of city resources that should be invested in the project and other concerns expressed at the meeting. On one hand, the city acquires and invests in parks using tax dollars in almost every other case.

Though there is certainly precedent for private donations and fundraising, the 400 block project has emerged as some kind of unique carve-out in some people’s minds against  long-standing policies and practices. On the other hand, a high level of private funding was clearly one of the selling points for the project at the council. At least some of the votes in favor of proceeding were more or less conditional on that concept. An amendment that would have delineated this very clearly will now be dealt with in the Finance Committee, which I chair.

There were some provisions in the original “Kaiser Amendment” offered that I am not inclined to agree to. These include specifying a hard cap on dollars from the city and their source, setting up a geographical line that divides “the land of public dollars” from the “land of private dollars” and a hard percentage of private dollars that need to be in hand before work can proceed. It needs to be remembered by opponents of the program that when you lose the vote, it doesn’t mean you get to call the tune for the people who are ready to dance. At the same time, there were some political and practical realities that Matt Kaiser was legitimately trying to deal with. (Whether he would have ultimately supported the main measure if his amendment had carried is something we don’t know.)

Do we need to enunciate a policy on these matters at all? I believe that we do – and clearly. The political reality is that some members of the council voted in favor of the plan in the good faith belief that private funding would cover the great majority of the project costs. That needs to be honored. All members of the council are up for re-election in April and since the project will not have commenced yet, there will be enough fears and smears surrounding the 400 block project being passed around anyway. Legitimizing those complaints by handling things on this high-profile issue in a manner that seems to have council members reneging on what is fairly viewed as their commitment to proceeding with private funding is a recipe for a lot of hard feelings.

There is also the practical matter of money. The city will have plenty on its budget plate for next year already. State shared revenue is being cut and the growth in the tax base will not match up to prior years as a result in the decline of new projects that accompanied the recession. I’m not interested in creating a perception that we would be willing to lay off family breadwinners and overtax property owners for the purpose of creating enough headroom in the budget to accommodate what many still see as something that is far from an emergency.

So what’s fair and makes sense? First, the hard number should be applied to the private funding component – not the public side of the equation. In consideration for the tremendous gift that the city is hoping to receive from private donors, the city needs to tell them outright and soon just exactly where the bar is that they need to jump over. When they show up with the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, the city needs to grant their request with no ifs, ands or buts.

This construction project is going to be contracted by the city and it is the city that holds the cards, not the donors. If certain items are optional, then it is fair to give donors a minimum for the basic plan and then a “stretch goal” to accomplish those additions. Laying these understandings out clearly upfront will allow the fund drive to be clearly defined and provides the best opportunity for it to achieve its goals.  It can’t be a one-sided discussion because people from either side can walk if they don’t think it works for them. 

Second, there are aspects of the project that relate to infrastructure, public safety and code requirements for which the city has more than a passing interest and should take responsibility. We want a facility that meets certain specifications, while minimizing future costs for upkeep, replacements or upgrades because that saves money and it’s the right way to do things. The donors to the project aren’t doing something for their private benefit, but providing the means for a public facility that serves everyone. It’s the city’s land and it’s going to be the city’s square. As prudent landowners and managers, there are things like utility infrastructure, perimeter sidewalks, etc. that would be the responsibility of any developer if they involved private land. To the extent that any existing facilities may be adequate and in good repair, some kind of reasonable understanding on these things can surely be reached that is fair to both donors and city taxpayers. Moreover, there may be an opportunity for the city to assist this project with in-kind services. That should not only be allowed, but also encouraged for this partnership effort because it benefits everyone involved.

Finally, an agreeable governance structure and adequate capacity needs to be in place on the private donation side to accommodate contributions, including in-kind. This is more than simply a matter of having a tax-deductible fund to which people can send their contributions. With regard to the former, the parties need to be in complete agreement on expectations so that the considerable private funds being raised do not become a leveraging issue between the public and private partners at some point later in the process. With regard to the latter, not all in-kind contributions may be appropriate or may include conditions that would not be acceptable. To the greatest extent possible, this possibility should be anticipated and dealt with on a policy level – before someone comes in with an ill-advised idea that turns everyone inside out because we haven’t put anything in place to deal with it. People must be able to have complete confidence in the players and understand their roles.

So those are my initial thoughts. I’m only one council member and I’m constantly learning new things along the way, too. But whatever issues there are now or that will emerge need to be resolved and then we’ll take it wherever it leads us. Again, a big “THANK YOU!” to everyone who has made the substantial progress thus far possible.









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