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GUEST COLUMN: Bad blood and good government

in News/Opinion

“The most constructive thing it could do is help develop a cooperative plan for a county retail and industrial park in the areas of Fleet Farm and County Highway WW. That’s the “win” for everyone.”

By Keene Winters, for Wausau Pilot & Review

You do not have to live in this community very long to know that there is “bad blood” between the Marathon County Board of Supervisors and the city of Wausau. Important programs like a drug court languish while the two sides trade jibes about this and that.

Keene Winters
Keene Winters served two terms on the Wausau City Council from April 2012 to April 2016. (Photo credit: Life Touch)

Yet even within that context, Marathon County’s latest threat to finance the Village of Maine’s lawsuit against Wausau stands out for its “cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face” nature.

Some $70 million dollars in public funds has been invested in infrastructure from the U/K Interchange, the Brokaw Interchange, the Wisconsin River Bridge and the Brokaw water & sewer system. Much of it was to service a mill and support 400 good-paying jobs that no longer exist. Part of that amount remains as debt that still has to be paid off. The rest will be wasted taxpayer dollars unless there is follow-up development and new job creation around those interchanges. The key fact that everyone keeps ignoring is that the 2,600 people in the proposed village of Maine do not have the resources to deal with the existing debt, let alone incur the expenses that it will take to develop the interchange areas to their highest and best use.

Wausau has been portrayed as the greedy monster that likes to gobble-up its neighbors for sport. The truth is that Maine took this action to prevent a dozen of its own landowners in the area of Fleet Farm from fulfilling their desire to leave the town, join Wausau and develop their parcels with Wausau sewer and water.

On the other side of the river, it is the town of Texas that forced land owners on the north side of Evergreen Road to go into the proposed Village of Maine, take on Brokaw’s debt and pay higher taxes just to build a border wall to forestall potential future annexations. Wausau is not mistreating anyone.

I don’t know how we have become so paranoid about annexations. They are not an act of coercion. Annexations occur when landowners adjacent to a municipality freely decide they want to join the urban area and petition the municipality to let them join. The conversion of rural areas into urban areas means new businesses, new jobs, new places to live and new tax base for schools, counties and municipalities alike. If we do not have new development by the interchanges, taxpayers somewhere are going to have to reach into their pockets to retire infrastructure debt and all that spending on infrastructure will be wasted.

Speaking of reaching into taxpayers’ pockets, we just saw the first ask. The semi-solvent village of Maine is panhandling county taxpayers for legal fees. If granted, there will likely be no end to what they want from the county. Next, it will be money for environmental remediation. Then they will need money for infrastructure like water and sewer. After that, there will be demands for more county services such as extra policing. The proposed village of Maine cannot solve its fiscal problems without significant outside help.

The county supervisors should be aware that this is one of those cases where the Pottery Barn Rule applies: if you break it, then you bought it. If the county intervenes on behalf of the proposed village and starts sending them money, then the county will own all the future fiscal problems of the village.

If Marathon County has some spare cash and wants to participate, the most constructive thing it could do is help develop a cooperative plan for a county retail and industrial park in the areas of Fleet Farm and County Highway WW. That’s the “win” for everyone.

The residents of Marathon County need and deserve a 21st century county government that takes a leadership role in economic development and in fostering multi-jurisdictional cooperation, not one that thinks its only role is to pave roads in rural areas. Whatever ancient acts started the feud between the city and the county are no longer relevant. It is time for Marathon County to become a productive partner with municipal governments in economic development and job creation. Bad blood does not make for good government.

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