I read with interest the letter from a reader in Weston with many assertions about Wausau’s mayor, staff members and other officials, including myself. I’d like to offer some facts, as the letter had many opinions based upon the author’s perception of some events, which I witnessed. He did not. If we are going to give out “grades,” let’s have the facts first.
Liberty Mutual: A few years ago, Liberty was approved to construct a building at the top of Bridge Street. Shortly after, they paused and began looking at a site on the river front, near the Dudley Tower. The city didn’t own that land, so Liberty began negotiating with the owner, which moved at a painfully slow pace even as city leaders tried to help them find common ground. With no progress from the land owner, Liberty was under pressure from its current landlord, Aspirus, to renew its lease on Westwood Drive, and it chose to stay. This retained the jobs they provide here in Wausau, versus moving out of town, which was also possible. No city or mayor can control corporate decisions made when private businesses can’t agree to terms. Wausau remains interested in working with Liberty on new possibilities closer to its current lease expiration.
Thomas Street: The project is done after 10 years of delay from land purchase errors made by former staff members, under a prior administration and redesign of the roadway. Redesign forced by three former alderpersons who formed a voting bloc in the Finance Committee tying up funds to force a new design, or face more delay while utilities beneath the road decayed, leaving residents caught in the middle. Mistakes were made by former staff members, no question. Yet, the city recovered the funds Thomas Street did not qualify for by securing the same fund source for the recently completed First Avenue, reducing the borrowing for that project.
Riverside Park: This issue emerged as the DNR concluded Thomas Street construction did not pose a public health risk in the road corridor. Concern shifted to the park as toxicologists from Wisconsin told officials, based on their analysis, a person could visit the park daily for decades, ingest soil and not get the sickness people feared. This conflicted with the work of the citizen group, creating confusion for all, including officials. Some of the area of concern isn’t easily accessed by park users, and discussion continues on more testing, which I support. Recently, I did ask that the city and CCW wait a short time until we know what, if any, mandates the DNR may give Wauleco, responsible party for the factory suspected of emitting pollutants. I asked this because I believe when factories pollute land, the people who should pay for clean-up are those who caused the pollution whenever possible. I worried that Wausau and CCW testing too soon may shift responsibility for clean up to Wausau taxpayers, letting polluters off the hook. After Wauleco’s tests, DNR could mandate they clean it up and pay if they are responsible. If clean-up is mandated, and the industry is not held accountable by DNR, that is the time where government should help and/or seek EPA grants for it. I was not supportive of conducting separate tests too early in the DNR process, because we’d basically be volunteering to fix what private industry caused, allowing them to leave taxpayers paying to clean their mess. My request to wait wasn’t about not wanting safe parks. It was 100 percent about making the appropriate party pay what they owe if they carelessly polluted our park. The city and CCW should have a common enemy, and it is the polluter, not each other.
The mall: Local foundations working to secure local control of Wausau Center have been reviewing legal agreements to finalize acquisition from Rialto Capital. At last update, the real estate closing is imminent and negotiations are done. Once the group has control of the mall, plans can begin to redevelop. The city never controlled the mall building before, but was willing to work with all mall owners for revitalization. Local leaders were clear, it was not our goal to save the mall, and we expect substantial private investment in any new plan to reduce taxpayer risk.
Micon Cinema: The project fell through after an impasse between the cinema owner and mall owner, mainly from unreasonable demands made by the mall owner. Based on the city’s ownership of the Sears building, redevelopment may focus on that area early on under the new local partnership.
Homelessness: Our council identified this as a priority issue. The mayor and I are currently on a new task force organized by the Wausau Police Department, bringing stakeholders together identifying better ways to meet the needs of a vulnerable population; better connect services to people and gather ideas from service agencies to guide policy changes to remove roadblocks to their work. This dynamic group is making progress after only the first three sessions. We’re looking for gaps in services where local government may assist. Talks are also ongoing to find solutions to bring to the council and community.
Long term debt: Wausau increased borrowing for critical infrastructure projects, facility updates and growth opportunities while interest rates were low. We’ve set up a rapid debt reduction plan that will have over 80 percent of the city’s general obligation debt repaid within 10 years. The mayor and current council restructured Wausau’s debt to require the water and sewer utility to finally carry its own debts, including debt for water and sewer plant upgrades necessary to meet DNR mandates and ensure safe water supply and wastewater treatment. Wausau is currently below its established 50 percent borrowing cap by strategizing to reduce debt, while getting key projects completed.
Riverlife: This project is building now and pre-leasing units on schedule. Based on a strong development agreement, Wausau was able to recover initial expenses from former partner, Barker Financial, and the new, local developer is completing the project with no additional public investment, beyond the original sum approved.
It bears notice, that the mayor can’t approve projects, borrow money, give out raises or fund local government no matter who he or she is. That is the City Council’s job, and we must vote on all of that. We do not take this lightly. We seek the best return on investment for constituents and work to limit partnership on projects to 10 percent or less of the total value, using reverse TIF plans that demand results before we pay whenever possible to reduce risk. When projects don’t make sense, we send them packing, often in committees before they ever get to council.
Before 2016, the council spent so much time fighting with Mayor Tipple and creating ugly headlines, we couldn’t do much else, let alone sell Wausau as a place to live or own a business. The results were undeniably negative. As a former council president, Mayor Mielke knew the conflict served no one well. He began by making some early staffing changes and immediately opened up communication and information flow between his office, city staff and council, so we could work better with staff to get answers. He demanded all committee meetings be put on TV and streamed online so people could watch from anywhere. Working together, we’ve been able to get people to choose Wausau, resulting in over $300 million in new property value built here and more underway. We helped the private sector add lots of jobs, ramped up our fight against blight and drugs and built amenities people love, like the new Riverfront Park. Wausau continues adding things cities need for future success. New development, quality of life amenities, more jobs, a diverse housing mix, infrastructure and utilities that meet new requirements, mean a brighter future. Are results like that truly worthy of “failing” grades for our mayor or council members? I certainly hope not.
Lisa Rasmussen, Wausau City Council member, District 7.
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