By Shereen Siewert
Wausau’s two mayoral candidates faced off publicly for the first time Wednesday in a jam-packed room, sharing their ideas on a range of topics from economic development to addressing poverty and homelessness.
The forum between Wausau Mayor Robert Mielke and challenger Katie Rosenberg drew so much attention, some attendees were forced to listen from the hallway at the University of Stevens Point at Wausau’s Terrace Room.
During the roughly 90-minute debate, Mielke focused largely on the city’s robust economic growth and improved culture at City Hall, using the phrase “It’s better than it used to be” more than a half dozen times throughout the event.
Rosenberg focused on bringing diverse voices together and finding ways to reduce debt and spending.
Both candidates were asked how they would prioritize city services for citizens. Mielke said city services are the reason residents pay taxes, and talked about the improved morale at city departments.
“A few years ago we didn’t have that mesh if you want to call it,” Mielke said. “We have better communication, the biggest reason being me reaching out…It’s better than it used to be. There’s a better culture at city hall.”
Rosenberg instead focused on prioritizing city spending, pointing to a breakdown of how city taxes are currently being allocated. Police and fire are at the top of the list, she said, followed by 21.75 percent of tax dollars being used to retire debt.
“This isn’t a best practice,” Rosenberg said, suggesting that 12.5 percent of an operating budget would be more appropriate. “I took a tour at the Department of Public Works and it’s apparent they need help. If we can save some money (on debt), we can spend it on other things.”
When asked about regional partnerships, Mielke said relations with neighboring communities are significantly improved and said he recently met again with other community leaders to discuss possible consolidation of city services. He also noted that the number of lawsuits the city is involved in has dropped from 36 to 4 and said he tries to find common solutions with neighboring communities.
“I got the lawsuit with Maine to end,” Mielke said. “I have been told told relationships are the best they’ve ever been.”
Rosenberg said there are many opportunities for future partnerships, especially with Marathon County, that could save money on health care and human resources services, among others.
“There are a lot of different opportunities to consolidate and find economies of scale,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg, who represents Dist. 1 on the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, said she regularly attends city council meetings and has done so for years, but the only county board meeting she recalls the mayor attending is one in which he asked for a share of the vehicle registration tax — and that type of sharing isn’t allowed by state law.
“It’s really important that we show up for each other and find those economies of scale,” Rosenberg said.
Regarding economic development, Rosenberg said the use of tax increment financing is probably the question she’s asked most about
“It is critical that the projects we are working on succeed,” Rosenberg said, adding that she is “not anti-development.”
But Rosenberg said she wants to see changes in the city’s economic development strategy and the RFP process.
“What’s really important to me is that we’re following the right process,” Rosenberg said. “Frankly, I think we have some of our starters on the bench when it comes to our economic development team.”
Rosenberg specifically calls for changes in the RFP process to increase the number of responses the city receives and ensuring the city is getting the most out of TIF investments.
“I’m not saying never use it, but having a 37-year open TIF is not the best plan.”
Mielke defended Wausau’s use of TIF as an economic development tool, pointing to the $350 million invested in the city over the past three years.
“We always do plan in an open and transparent way; we look at return on investment,” Mielke said. “It’s a lot better than it used to be.”
Rosenberg said that fighting poverty and homelessness is tied to a public transportation that ensures access to jobs, pointing to a study that showed only 24 percent of available jobs in Wausau are accessible by bus.
Mielke said that the city tried to engage with other communities to expand bus service but no one else wants to pay for it.
“We tried to talk to surrounding communities but there’s not a lot of interest,” Mielke said.
But Rosenberg said it’s not enough to raise fares, cut services and call the city victims of other communities. Instead, she is calling for an aggressive pilot program, part of which would expand bus service to Rib Mountain for at least a year to collect ridership data, then present that data to other surrounding communities to show that it is working and beneficial to them.
Part of the discussion revolved around planned $101 million upgrades to Wausau’s drinking and wastewater treatment facilities, a project that will lead to a sharp increase in water and sewer rates for residents. Rosenberg said it’s time to re-evaluate the plan and consider other options.
Mielke said, “Respectfully my opponent has some things to learn.”
The upgrade is necessary, Mielke said, in part because the current facility can’t be expanded.
But Rosenberg countered with questioning why expansion is necessary when the city’s population is not growing.
“I do have things to learn, but growing our water plant with no growth in population doesn’t seem like a great idea,” she said.
I her closing statement, Rosenberg said she will rely on a results-driven model with an obvious return on investment, if elected.
“Nice isn’t enough,” Rosenberg said. “I am a strategic planner, a strategic innovator. I want to be a change-maker, and I want to bring you along in the process.”
Mielke said he loves being mayor and wants to continue what he started, with verifiable results.
“We’ve made good, powerful, peaceful progress,” Mielke said. “I have proven leadership. Things are much better than they were.”
The full video of the debate can be viewed here.