By Keene Winters, for Wausau Pilot & Review
Sometimes big changes can come packaged in a series of smaller increments. That seems to be how the transformation of the east side riverfront is being sold to this community— piece by piece, so that no one notices what is happening, or what it all costs.
My May 1 opinion editorial must have touched a nerve because on May 9 the Wausau city council finally got its first look at the change in debt policy and the surge in new borrowing. True to form, the council got their information packets at the last minute, so they had no time to study them. The packets, in turn, had lots of numbers arranged in such a way that were not very helpful to readers. That’s how the council gets “rolled” and the public right along with them.
Clearly, this change in debt policy is a bigger deal than city officials are making it out to be. Below is a full data set for Wausau’s peer group from MunicipalFacts16. We are going from a city whose debt was below the median to one of the highest debt levels in the State of Wisconsin. That’s huge!
Besides the sheer magnitude of the spending, a good question would be what are we getting for our money? So far, the answer seems to be: not enough.
At the project level, much of what we are buying in this round is essentially “a hole in the ground.” We are going to pay big bucks to move buildings but are left with vacant properties, required demolition, environmental remediation and new construction yet to come. Until those “holes in the ground” are filled, there will be no new tax base to help pay for the debt.
Will it be worth the costs to the community? Fortunately, Ehlers, the city’s bond consultant, has given us some insight. But, again, it does not look favorable.
Ehlers projects the city’s equalized valuation to grow a total of 8 percent over the next 20 years. That means, on average, the net fair market property value of the city as a whole is expect to grow only one percent every two and a half years. So, if we are counting on new tax-base to make millions of dollars in new annual debt payment, the forecast looks bleak.
It is easy to spend money. “A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money” is the famous quip attributed to Senator Everett Dirksen. The riverfront spending is adding up, but it is not clear how the pieces come together. It is genuinely astounding that any community would deploy public debt of this magnitude without a comprehensive riverfront master plan and extensive public discourse first.
In fact, the city cannot even come up with a one-year plan and stick to it. In April of 2016, the council passed three bond resolutions authorizing the issuance of $20,210,000 in new bonds and notes and retirement of $8,585,000 in debt. That was supposed to leave the city with a total debt of $66,668,575 at year end.
What happened? Instead of sticking to that budget, the council approved five additional debt issues in the eight remaining months of the year for another $8,756,029. As a result, the city ended 2016 with total outstanding debt of $75,079,604. That is a tremendous difference! Yet, nobody raises any questions along the way because it is sold bit by bit, hiding the true fiscal impact.
Citizens deserve a much greater level of transparency and a meaningful public debate before Wausau issues $50 million in new debt and double the city’s level of indebtedness to $105 million. Big decisions like whether to build the downtown mall, whether to combine high schools or not, or whether to build new school buildings have traditionally been made as a community through a referendum. Why should this significant undertaking be any different?
By the first council meeting in June, the city ought to be able to tell us whether there is a comprehensive plan for the riverfront that is ready for citizens to vote on. If the answer is no, then the borrowing and spending should be stopped until there is such a plan. It is a sham to pretend that what is happening along the riverfront is a series of discrete and unrelated small projects. Wausau voters deserve a referendum on this massive and costly redevelopment project.
Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly publishes thoughtful letters from readers and city officials on matters of wide public interest. To submit a letter for publication, email firstname.lastname@example.org.