Wausau's budget, a fight over Wausau's water bills and other tidbits
An interesting fight occurred at the Wausau City Council on Tuesday. Some council members want to see the pilot payment to the city by the water utility eliminated.
What’s that? Right now that’s just north of $1.5 million that the city’s water utility pays to the city in lieu of taxes. That money goes to the city’s general fund.
City Council Member Tom Kilian called it a “slush fund” — and would like to see that payment eliminated. Why? Because people’s water bills have skyrocketed this year. If you want to know why, I wrote about why Wausau’s water bills would increase last year.
Removing the fund should, in theory, lower rates, since it would take a $1.59 million annual expense off the utility’s books.
But there are some challenges with it:
Rate changes are a lengthy process. It’s not something that just happens, there’s a whole process involving the Public Service Commission and outside firms to help make the case for a rate change.
Shifts the tax burden. The city gets money through water bill payments from entities that otherwise don’t pay taxes. And some of those are pretty big bills. But assuming eliminating the pilot payment would raise taxes to cover the $1.59 million shortfall, it might disproportionately fall on taxpayers, including those in lower income situations.
If taxes aren’t raised to cover the shortfall, that would mean $1.59 million in cuts to the city budget. Depending on who you are that might seem like a very good thing, or a very bad thing, but what’s for certain is there won’t be easy agreement on what to cut. The city of Stevens Point’s budget process in 2011, in which crazy cuts were proposed, produced some of the most contentious meetings I’ve ever seen and actually changed the political dynamics of that government. 1
A cut to the pilot payment was proposed, and it didn’t pass; but it’s probably an issue that will come up again, so keep an eye out for it.
Speaking of the budget…
The 2024 budget passed on Tuesday. The new mill rate is $10.86 for the city portion of property taxes, which is a $0.26 increase from 2023. That’s another $52 an owner of a $200,000 house will pay in property taxes next year.
It passed but not without some controversy, even outside of the pilot payment. Council members battled over two new positions in the city: a part-time administration position for the Community Development office, and a full-time administration position to be shared between the police and fire departments.
What was the controversy? People were annoyed that these positions were rushed through. There was a debate about process — should a position be funded first through finance, then head to the HR committee? Or should HR and the city’s HR director vet them first?
The situation first came to The Wausonian’s attention when newish city HR Director James Henderson said he received the information he needed about the new positions two days before the committee was to meet, and said he didn’t have enough time to vet the positions and, essentially, do the job he was hired to do. That sparked the committee to pause on approving it, and a motion to remove funding from the budget for those two positions was narrowly defeated, 6-5.
But while funding for those positions ultimately remained in the budget, expect process discussions to come to the forefront in upcoming council meetings and in the mayoral campaign. It’s a theme that’s already emerged multiple times.
Speaking of campaigning…
City Council Member Doug Diny brought up the possibility of creating an administrator position — and that seemed to rankle some feathers. City Council Member Lisa Rasmussen pointed out that referenda in the passed rejected the idea of the city hiring an administrator and that she wasn’t going to task the HR director with something like that at the last minute. City Council Member Carol Lukens accused Diny of campaigning from the council floor. Diny responded that he was offended by the suggestion.
Now-Mayor Katie Rosenberg and then-Mayor Robert Mielke both told The Wausonian in their mayoral interviews that they were open to the idea, or something like it (Rosenberg suggested a chief of staff, for instance).
That referendum was 2015, and two mayors ago. It’s possible the city’s voters have changed their minds. (It’s of course also possible that they have not.)
But is it a good idea? There are plenty of pros and cons to explore, possibly in a future piece, but one pro is having a professional manager who can focus on the nitty gritty details, allowing the mayor to focus on vision and big picture. The downside? I’m sure I don’t have to remind residents of the Wausau area how it can go wrong (Hi, Daniel Guild).
Interview? Just kidding
I was told through an intermediary that Police Chief Clay Schulz wanted to sit down to an interview with me. Then when I asked for that interview, Schulz declined (through that same intermediary). Meanwhile, the village’s joint finance police commission actually considered firing the woman who filed the complaint. (Update: Fixed typo in the second paragraph.)
I’ve finished interviews for my failing grades story, and have begun working on it. (Other than Wausau, since they don’t seem to want to participate.) Expect to see that one soon, and for it to be in-depth.
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The mayor there include cutting the city’s crossing guard program, which led to meetings in which children went before the podium and said “Why are you cutting us, mayor?” I suspect Mayor Andrew Halverson’s plan at the time was to propose some untenable cuts that he would later walk back to make the other cuts more palatable. If so, it backfired as his political will eroded ever since then, to the point where he couldn’t hardly get anything passed.