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Opinion: Council president responds to backlash on proposed downtown ordinance

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Editor’s note: Lisa Rasmussen is president of the Wausau City Council. The views of our readers and guest columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot and Review. To submit a letter, email us at editor@wausaupilotandreview.com.

By Lisa Rasmussen

Recently, some have offered sharp criticism of the city and its leaders for considering an ordinance to prohibit loitering in municipal parking areas. At least three media reports created the impression that Wausau is seeking to fine homeless people for seeking shelter. While this generated a flurry of reactions as people saw the news on mobile apps and tv, it also created a misunderstanding of the ordinance, who it applies to and why.

Council President Lisa Rasmussen (City of Wausau photo)

In light of this, as the Chairperson of the committee that recommended the ordinance, I’ve chosen to offer more information to clarify. Whether it was a shortage of airtime or article space, the media coverage seemed incomplete. The issue goes beyond people seeking shelter from the cold, and is not applicable only to the homeless. There are other issues in parking ramps that this ordinance can assist with.

The proposed change came at the request of the Wausau Police Department in response to complaints they are receiving regularly from business owners and employees who pay to park in the ramps. Multiple times per week, Wausau’s Department of Public Works is called to parking ramps to clean up feces, urine, vomit or other fluids from the stairwells of parking ramps because they are not being used only for sleep or heat, they are being used as a toilet. This is a public health hazard for ramp users and employees. People should not be expected to walk around or through this bio hazard to get to their workplace, and there are other safety concerns.

The ordinance was never intended to apply only to homeless people and is not intended to fine or punish them. As proposed, it applies to loitering by anyone not parking or retrieving a vehicle in a ramp. This includes people looking to vandalize or break into cars, individuals looking for secluded areas to carry out drug transactions, or people lurking in a ramp waiting for people for reasons that could include assault.

The example discussed in committee included an explanation of the mess in the stairwells, but other safety concerns exist. This simply gives the police the legal authority to ask people to leave the area. Today there is no such policy. So, if people are loitering in the ramp looking to get into any sort of mischief, the police can ask them to leave, however, if that person or group refuses, there is no municipal law against them remaining there.

Any city ordinance carries a forfeiture, but it is up to the enforcing officer to use discretion as to when a citation is issued. Our police do this continually, and are not seeking to fine the homeless. Ultimately, the purpose of any ordinance is to modify behavior, not generate revenue. In fact, police officers work to find help and shelter for people they encounter who want it. Whether that is at one of the facilities operated by our non profit partners, such as the warming center or transitional living center, or local motels using charitable funds, the police are not looking to make the lives of the homeless worse.

They care about this community and seek to make Wausau safe for all, including the homeless and those who live, visit and work here.

The Wausau PD, Mayor and Council are working to partner on a multi faceted plan to address homelessness. This includes steps to address impacts of homelessness and align our efforts with those of local agencies to find larger solutions. Wausau has a coalition of agencies that do great work, yet much of their time is spent addressing it one case at a time. Measurable results are key for these agencies to receive certain funding, which bolsters a one at a time approach. This leads to slower progress solving the larger problem.

Our hope is that these channeled efforts will help policymakers identify and reduce barriers encountered by the non profits so their impact can be larger.

Legality of Wausau’s proposed fines for homeless questioned

In the end, solving homelessness is a community effort that leaders are seeking to be part of, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the needs of the rest of the community in the process. Keeping parking ramps clean and safe is a duty we have to taxpayers who own them, and people who pay to use them. We cannot ignore that, anymore than we can ignore homelessness as a growing issue in the area.

Ultimately, our shared goal should be to have fewer people living outside or sheltering in stairwells, because more are getting needed interventions. But there is no easy fix, and this ordinance is one step, at the beginning of a larger effort to get help to those that need it, balanced with our duty to maintain safe public facilities.

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