Wausau spent $800,000 on a $350,000 property. Now some want a process change
The future fire department property, a pair of new city positions and
I can’t remember where I got the tip from. Or maybe it was curiosity. Either way, I spent a little time digging around the Wausau property assessment portal, which allows you to see property data for city parcels.
Last month the city council approved buying land at 811 and 815 Grand Avenue for roughly $800,000, following some closed session discussions in previous meetings. The purchase was for a new potential fire department station at some point in the future (replacing the very old Station No. 1 a little farther up the road on Grand Avenue), though you wouldn’t know that from the agenda. Nothing about its purpose appeared on the agenda, nor did the purchase price.
And no one talked about the assessed value.
And probably for good reason. The assessed value of the 815 Grand Avenue property (there is no listing for an 811 Grand on the tax rolls) is $353,300. Tack on a little value for the building and the whole thing comes to $378,800. That assessment is dated as 2023.
Capital Improvement and Streets Maintenance committee member and council member Gary Gisselman bristled at that council meeting that their committee hadn’t been consulted. Land deals were supposed to come through CISM, he said, and the process was being bypassed.
And that’s not been the only complaint about process lately. James Henderson, the somewhat recently hired human resources director, expressed grave concern that a pair of new city positions — a shared administration position between the fire and police departments, and the same in the community development department — were rushed through his office without time to fully vet the positions and get everything in order.
Over Henderson’s concerns, the committee hit the pause button on approving the positions so Henderson had the proper amount of time to vet them. And funding the positions (a separate process) was nearly voted down at council because of that. Council President Becky McElhaney expressed frustration that their new director was being bypassed. “I don’t care if that’s how it’s been done before, it’s wrong,” she told the council at the time.
At the center of the problem is a question: Does the finance committee have too much power? Both of those items received their heaviest discussion at Finance, and many believe the other committees are almost treated as afterthoughts.
Finance Chair and long-time council member Lisa Rasmussen has a different perspective. Her point is that the Finance Committee only approves the funding side - and that it makes sense before spending a lot of staff time and committee time on a project, that the city ensure the money is actually there to fund it in the first place.
And, she argues, the fire department project went through the city’s capital improvement projects process, which involves ranking of projects the city would like to accomplish. It didn’t make the cut in 2022 but did in 2023, so was included in the 2024 budget.
According to Rasmussen, the land purchase was considered a fair market value compared to like sales, the city assessor told officials in closed session.
But not everyone is so sure it was a good deal. The property hasn’t been used for awhile, and its last assessments appears to be the latest assessment for 2023. It increased beyond the $300,000 mark in 2020. So what led the assessor to say that $800,000 was a good price?
I decided to ask the city assessor.
Rick Rubow replied pretty quickly:
The 2023 assessment for this parcel was based on 2019 sales information for the 2020 City Wide revaluation. Since we do not perform annual revaluations, the assessment remains the same until the next revaluation. If you were to look at just about any real estate sale that occurred this year in Wausau, you would find that the current assessment is very likely substantially lower than the purchase price. This is reflected on the tax bill as the assessment ratio. When the level of assessment (Assessment Ratio) drops below 90% or over 110% of market value the state statutes requires the municipality that they need to bring assessments back to 100% of market value. This is done in a city-wide revaluation.
According to the assessment history on the city’s assessment website, though, the assessment changed specifically for 2023. In 2022 (and going back to 2020) it was $314,000.
And as we mentioned, while assessed value isn’t always the sales price, double the price still seems like a pretty hefty increase, especially for a property that’s been sitting awhile.
I looked up a number of properties in Zillow. Most were listed higher than their assessed value, but none were more than 100% of their assessed price.
The same was true of a number of commercial properties The Wausonian examined. While they were often selling for more, and came out typically a little higher than residential property, none were 100% more than the assessed price.
Changing the game
The most recent uproars might mean a change coming for how the council handles various requests and what order they end up at the Finance Committee. Rasmussen pointed out that city staff have felt a little off-put because they were following what they thought was the correct process, only to feel attacked by city council members.
Lou Larson told the committee that he apologized to the police chief about the implications, but that he still felt the process needed some examination.
Either way, City Attorney Ann Jacobson says she will be researching the processes of other similar municipalities and will bring back some possible structures the CISM Committee can discuss. That committee could recommend changes to either the city’s executive committee, which has only met once, or to the city council. The new structure could be handled via a rule change.
All that, of course, comes on the heels of what could potentially be a change in council leadership. At present, the city council could have up to three new members by next April. (And potentially more, though it’s not likely someone new would file at this point; but it’s not impossible either.)
We’ll know more in January.
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