Wausau mayoral debate Feb. 5, 2020

By Shereen Siewert

The Wausau chapter of the AAUW on Thursday released the answers to questions posed to Wausau’s current mayor, Robert Mielke, and his challenger, Katie Rosenberg, after their Feb. 5 debate.

The group, along with Citizen Action of Wisconsin, hosted the debate at the University of Stevens Point at Wausau campus to a jam-packed house. Members of the audience wrote their own questions for the candidates, but time ran out before all questions were answered.

As promised, the AAUW posted the answers to the remaining questions from each candidate on the organization’s Facebook page on Thursday. They are being republished here in their entirety by permission.

Q: What would you do in the first 90 days if elected?


Continue working with the new task force created to address homelessness. Seek solutions where local government can partner on a few things: removing policy hurdles, that slow the work of those providing services, collaborate with non-profits on potential for development of a day center where homeless residents can keep warm when the warming centers are closed and continue to look for ways to help the local coalition make a bigger impact.

2. Work with our foundation partners to move planning forward for new options for Wausau Center Mall Continue working with the County Metropolitan Planning Organization, engaging discussion with neighboring communities and business stakeholders to expand transit services in the metro area. This will require service agreements to comply with the law and a plan for cost sharing between partners. So far, there is some interest in neighboring communities from businesses in funding the expansion, but suburban residential taxpayers are not as willing, which was the case in Rib Mountain.


1) Understand: While I can attend meetings and read news reports right now, there’s still a level of on the job context. I will visit every department, talk to department heads and employees, identify immediate needs and longer terms challenges and opportunities.

At the same time, I will need to ensure the city council understands their roles as policymakers. I will work to get the League of Wisconsin Municipalities onsite to share governing best practices, Robert’s Rules of Order, TIF 101, and other topics. This will also be time to identify council committees and chairs.

2) Assess & Evaluate: There are a number of processes and procedures to sort through.

I’ve already identified some, like the opportunities we have with economic development. There are structural changes like putting city planning at the forefront of economic development but also procedural changes like ensuring we do background checks and collect an application and deposit from anyone who wants public funding as part of their project. I would start the process of looking at the structure and process for each of the more than 20 departments, including how the mayor interacts with them.

3) Optimize: Three months will fly by but we’re going to be working on the 2021 budget so it will be important to glean some key learnings so we can budget appropriately. That includes trying new things so we can continue planning for partnerships and pilot projects in the next year.

4) Engage: I will hold a series of on the record, facilitated opportunities for the community to offer their feedback on Wausau’s priorities. Residents, business owners, employees, non-profit leaders, and government partners will be among those who will be invited to participate. This will lead into setting Wausau’s priorities over the next four years and guide the council committee work.

Q: How long has the Mayor’s message been included in the Wausau Report? Moving forward, how should this be handled? 


This question needs clarification. There is no Wausau Report. Are we talking about the LIFE Report? Or the City Newsletter?

Assuming the question is referring the city newsletter, the Mayor’s message has been included in the newsletter for over 15 years, and is a key communication to keep residents informed of our status and progress. Wausau’s mayor should continue to issue this column, because it is an informational item, not a political process. Clearly, there should be no requests for support, contributions or votes, however, former mayors have even included in their messages during election season, an encouragement for residents to go out and vote in council races, etc. I have not included such and would not in the future. The Mayor’s message is typically adjusted seasonally, and often contains status updates similar to what the state of the city address includes, but in an abbreviated way.


I don’t know how long the Mayor’s Message has been included in the Wausau newsletter. There is no ordinance governing it’s creation, distribution, or timeline. When I asked about it, I was told that the mayor’s office has determined the schedule and took the lead on collecting the content.

On the legislative side, state legislators simply don’t send newsletters between the time they are collecting nomination signatures and the election during an election cycle. That could be one answer — no newsletters from December 1 – April 7.

Another option could be delegating communications to a Public Information Officer. That has the added benefit of having a professional communicator in charge of communications on behalf of

the city, instead of adding that to the load of a department head who may or may not be skilled in communication. The newsletter could still be sent out but during election years, the Mayor’s Message could be replaced with a message from someone else, like the Police Chief or the City Clerk.

One final thought on this, both the city and the county produce newsletters, field questions from the media, and are concerned about social communications. This is another opportunity to partner on communications resources if we went the route of a Public Information Officer, instead of going it alone. We already partner on City County IT services, having a professional communicator could also ensure our websites are user friendly and get the job done for residents, employees, and follow all records retention rules.

Q: What is more important, acting in response to the will of the people? Or, acting in the way city officials believe is the best course of action?


Elected officials and their voting decisions should mirror the will of the majority of the people. It is impossible to get unanimous agreement from all residents, so we must reflect the will of the largest majority. When issues arise where there is feedback on multiple sides, officials should receive all background information on the issue, consider costs and benefits of each choice and communicate with residents to assess where the majority of the public feedback is asking us to carry our city. Since policy and financial decisions are made by the common council, and the mayor does not vote unless there is a tie, obviously the mayor should offer information received from communication with citizens so the council is aware of the feedback, but they should make a decision that represents the wish of majority within their districts. It is the job of city staff to provide information, but it is up to the council to decide what course the city will follow and vote accordingly. Whatever course that is, the staff must carry it out with my supervision, unless the decision is so impractical that it would require veto action.


You have to do both. Part of being a leader is doing the work and picking the right course of action while also including and educating the public as you go. Rarely is there only one option in city policy. When I look at my work on the Marathon County Board, particularly with County Administrator Brad Karger, I see the ways he was able to build consensus with the board and public through looking at our options.

As Vice Chair on the Mount View Care Center Committee, we explored three specific options for the future of the nursing home. 1) We could get out of the nursing home business altogether and sell the land to a private developer to do with what they wanted. 2) We could still keep the nursing home building but outsource services to a private company. 3) Or we could renovate and work on building the business case for Marathon County. Every one of those options has pros and cons and over 18 months we explored what they would look like when it comes to the county’s statutory obligations, demographic and business trends, and how we viewed our role as a county. Also over those 18 months we held bi-monthly and monthly meetings, checked in with the Health and Human Services Committee, and presented our findings to the executive committee. We also held a public hearing on NCHC as a whole so people could tell us what they cared about. This was a strategic, transparent, and methodical process to bring everyone in our community along.

Q: What is your greatest weakness? Strength?


Weakness: I don’t take enough time for family and relaxation. I’m usually either in the office or making public appearances 6 days a week, I attend almost every committee and commission meeting, and am seldom ever home before 7:00pm. If anything, I would say my work/life balance could stand some attention.

Strength: I am not content to settle for status quo. I am constantly asking myself, stakeholders and my staff what Wausau can do next to move forward, make progress and solve problems. That is why things are so different than they were when I was elected.


I take on a lot. I am excited by participating in our community and seeing results so my natural inclination is to say yes to serving on another board, say yes to speaking to a class, say yes to judging business plans, say yes to attending or even planning that event, say yes to having coffee with someone who maybe wants to run for office, say yes to serving on that task force, say yes to volunteering on my one free evening, you get the drill. I will do it all and I will hold myself and others to a high standard while doing it. It means your very favorite people, your spouse, your family, and your friends, are always getting the tired version of you. I’m working on being more mindful about the things I am saying yes to and the time it’s taking away from other parts of my life but as you can imagine, running for mayor makes that even harder.

When it comes to strengths, I am confident in my ability to dive into an unfamiliar situation and get up to speed very quickly. I value the process of researching, learning, evaluating, and putting it into action. If you’ve seen me at any meetings, you will see me taking notes. That’s because I know I learn better by listening and writing and then later analyzing what we’ve gone through. I also like having the record of what we’ve gone through so I can go back and reference and ask thoughtful questions. I want to optimize what we’re doing no matter what it is.

Q: What will you do to improve race relations and eradicate institutionalized racism in the city?


Thave already been working on this to the extent that the city can address it by example at city hall. I have formed the Welcoming and Diversity committee to have open discussions about what Wausau can do to be more welcoming for all people, businesses, etc as a first step. The common council and department heads will be participating in diversity and inclusivity training this month, and a second session will be set up for the new council once it is seated. We continue trying to make sure city processes are as user friendly as possible. We can’t solve this alone, but we can work on making Wausau a place where people feel more welcome. I continue to support the work of local groups who want to help address the issue, since government can’t solve it all. We can be a better example though, and I’ve given thought to considering amendments to our mission and core values statements to add verbiage about inclusivity, and will discuss those ideas with the council as they approve changes.


Step one is acknowledging that it’s happening and using our privilege to highlight opportunities for equity. In cities like St. Paul they have created a racial equity steering committee made up of employees that finds gaps in equity to help the city government understand and address those gaps. They also look at equity beyond race. We’re seeing things like access to transit and services affect a whole swath of our community, but it affects already marginalized populations more. In Appleton there is a full-time diversity coordinator that identifies opportunities to create equity in the city as an employer but also in policy.

Marathon County is working with the Government Alliance on Race Equity to advance equity and work towards outcomes that lift everyone. Wausau joining GARE and working through the program with the county could create better outcomes for our entire community.

Q: What have you done, or what will you do to prevent a pandemic such as the Coronavirus?


The only thing local units of government can do is continue to follow best practices guidance from Federal, State and Local health officials.


I don’t know that I’ve seen the city taking a lead in public health outside of licensing. I also don’t know that that is the role of city government. The Marathon County Health Department has access to state and federal funding to address public health issues, including infectious disease and has the governing body for oversight. I would be cautious about duplicating services but the city could have a role in education and information sharing. I am participating in a call with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition this week and will hear from CDC doctors about what’s happening with coronavirus and recommended steps for local government. Understanding the problem and scope is important, even if other organizations will lead on the solutions.

Q: How will you respond if/when Mike Frantz (owner of the ABC Supply Building) approached the city to develop his new property at the heart of the river district?


Mike Frantz used up all of the time and patience I and the city council had for listening and chances. He should never receive another cent from the city for any project based on his failure in the past. Frankly, if he called me for help or partnership, I’d hang up the phone. If he wants to develop that site, he will need to fund it himself, which ought to be interesting to watch. It is likely there is contamination on that site from the former Murray Machinery operation, so I wish him luck. The only way I would consider a project there is if he sells the building and discontinues any stake he has in it.


I laid out the beginnings of my economic development approach here: https://wausaupilotandreview.com/2020/02/06/candidate-letters-mayoral-challenger-talks-accou ntability-best-practices-in-her-vision-for-wausau/

If an organization wants money from the city, they will need to fill out an application, pay earnest money in the form of a $10,000 application fee, be subjected to a background check, must demonstrate that their primary financing is lined up, and have a development agreement signed with the city.

Q: With diversity, inclusion and belonging being such an important topic along with being the theme of the LIFE report, how do you plan on addressing the issue and making sure the burden does not fall only on those with diverse backgrounds? 


This is a regional issue, and one that exists in many areas, not just Wausau. However, we do need to gather feedback from our residents with diverse backgrounds to learn more about their challenges and will need to collaborate with them, as well as other groups like the County, schools, media, business organizations and others to develop solutions. Local government alone cannot solve social issues that are widespread and deeply rooted. But we can participate in efforts that lead to recognition of issues and solutions. Long term change is not an overnight process, but I support everyone making their best effort and adjusting along the way where additional work is needed.


City government can start by being an example of having a good DIBs (Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging Strategy) program. In an earlier question, I mentioned the city joining GARE and partnering with the county on best practices, I think that’s part of the solution. The idea is to ensure employees know how to identify potential gaps in equity so that the team can work on those gaps. This is a practice and anyone who is willing can learn. As government, we can lead.

Q: Why do you believe moving the Wausau Water utility is necessary when costs will double? More tax burden for the taxpayers?


The drinking water plant is currently located in a floodplain and could not be built today on its current site by DNR mandate. The city’s treated water, awaiting distribution is stored now in a tank at the facility that is below the groundwater table. New DNR mandates require this issue be corrected by the end of 2022. The solution is above ground tanks for this storage to prevent contamination. The cost to renovate the existing plant to comply and address deficiencies is $31 million and the current site cannot support any added mandates from DNR in the future. Moving the facility to the west side, closer to 5 of the 7 wells we draw water from raised cost by $10 million, however the new site is expandable to accommodate new, expected DNR regulations well into the next 50+ years. If we had spent the $31 million now to renovate the existing plant, and then new mandates came along, it is likely the facility would need to be moved in the future to meet requirements anyway. This would essentially have wasted the initial $31 million, and cause added expense of the move in the future for another $40 million. The water utility will carry the debt for this facility, separate from the city’s debts and costs are shared by all water users, not just property owners who pay property tax. While water rates are expected to increase, costs and rates are not “doubling” as the question stated, and upgrades are needed to correct deficiencies and maintain safe water.


I’ve taken some guff on my response that I would look at the options on this plan. But would I be doing my job, and the job that the voters demand of me, if I said I would just be a rubber stamp on the decisions of a previous administration? No. And that’s why I think it’s good to examine projects with fresh eyes.

Q: If elected, would you be in favor of instituting SB560 or a moratorium on TIF spending?


If SB560 passes in the legislature, Wausau will follow its provisions, as will every other community in the state. As for a moratorium on TIF projects, Wausau taxpayers would not benefit from it, since under a moratorium, any infrastructure projects (water/sewer/street construction or reconstruction) in our current TID districts then would be funded 100% by Wausau taxpayers alone and could not be funded as they are today where costs are shared among all taxing entities. This moratorium could stall growth in the current TID districts, causing either delayed or minimal return on investments taxpayers have already made in the established districts. This could result in failed or distressed districts in the future. The smarter solution is to generate growth in the districts we have, and look to close them early or on schedule to return the maximum benefits to the general fund at the soonest possible date.


As someone elected to local government, I really don’t like the idea of more state regulations on the tools that local government can use while at the same time seeing declining state aid. I am, however, intrigued at the phenomena that created this bill. It’s essentially creating a series of best practices for TID including the percentage of a project cost that can be made up of TID funds, project plans that include alternative economic projections of the TID’s finances and feasibility under different economic situations, and compelling arguments to amend a TID’s project plan that would add territory extend the termination date. Some of this actually sounds like information that Wausau should consider as part of the criteria they use it comes to using TID.

Q: How many housing units have been built? Who are the housing units for? 


Since 2016 hundreds of housing units have been developed across all levels of affordability. Higher end and market rate housing have been developed with a mixture of unit sizes and price points, affordable units were developed, including renovation of the old Savo Supply building, development of bungalow style houses with more affordable sale prices was approved on some Sherman St remnants, the 3rd St townhomes are selling at a mid-market rate, as well as new rental units along Thomas St. A new housing development was proposed for the north riverfront for later this year intended to appeal to empty nesters, and the private sector continues to develop housing, much of which is not receiving incentives from the city in any way, such as Urban West, Westwood Estates, and others. Wausau also continues to partner with local employers to encourage workforce home ownership using our Live it Up Wausau program which won awards. New home starts are at a record level the last couple years, which are not city assisted. With this mix, there is something for nearly everyone and more coming. We also have been offering low interest renovation loans that homeowners and landlords can use to spruce up existing houses for a number of years now.


According to this April 2019 Wausau Daily Herald article Wausau gained somewhere around 280 housing units but many had higher end price tags. https://www.wausaudailyherald.com/story/news/2019/04/23/wausau-housing-seven-new-develo pments-add-living-options-central-wisconsin/3484559002/ 

According to this article from an April 2018 Wausau City Pages, there are only 27 affordable housing units for every 100 people who need them. http://www.thecitypages.com/news-opinion/low-cost-housing/ 

Many bigger cities are taking a refreshed look at how their zoning codes contribute to fewer housing options, options for alternative housing like tiny homes, and even looking into special opportunities to work with veterans organizations.

Lastly, the city of Miami — and their Republican Mayor — have taken an interesting approach to affordable housing, particularly for senior citizens. They are looking at subsidized housing, they are looking at refurbishing units, and they are looking at several options to make their city more liveable for residents. I read about it in the latest AARP newsletter. https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2020/francis-suarez.html 

The trends we’re seeing in Wausau are not unique. We can learn from some of the best in class examples and work on making them fit Wausau’s needs and budget.

Q: Public buildings are still being built without consideration for the use of renewable energy (Fire station 2). Science points to the desperate need for change in the face of climate change. Why did Wausau choose to proceed without this consideration? Are there plans to add this new requirement to future buildings or will the city continue on the same unsustainable path? 


Wausau considered solar units for fire station #2, however the budget for that building was very tight for getting the building to meet needed requirements for the amount budgeted. Added costs for solar and reinforcement of the roof to accommodate it with no grant funding secured carried the taxpayers return on investment out over 20 years. We are considering incorporating sustainable methods into future buildings where planning for partnerships to offset costs and grant funding can take place well ahead of the design. We continue to look for retrofit solutions for existing facilities that make sense, and have implemented some, such as changing parking ramps and other street lighting to LED to save energy. This will continue and I’ll look to the new sustainability commission I appointed last year for recommendations and ideas also.


We need to prioritize sustainability. There are grants we should look into and there are cooperative options. There are enough examples of solid practices in other cities that the sustainability committee could really dig into them, study the options, and then offer suggestions that are the right size for Wausau.

Additionally, we need to build resiliency planning into our strategies. Are we worried about more frequent flooding? Changes to the waterfront? Security of our grid? We can and should consider some of the ramifications of our changing environment and plan for those changes.

Q: Recently, the city chose to proceed with destruction of a piece of a historic local landmark (Athletic Field) without seeing any plans that would have allowed continued use of the wall. The city also granted the ability to destroy several other historic homes for a parking lot. How do you foresee historical assets/architecture being part of the overall long range plans for Wausau?


First, Wausau approved removal of a small section of the wall at Athletic Park, however the approval required re use of the removed material, which is happening. The stone from the removed segment is being re-used in the new design to form 4 large pillars to blend the new with the old on the first base side. No other wall is being removed. There is a rendering of this on display in the lobby at city hall, and I invite you to stop and see it. I presume the second part of this question is referring to homes that were removed for the YMCA/Aspirus project downtown. Those homes were purchased by the YMCA in private real estate sales that the city was not part of, and were torn down by them as part of their expansion. Private sector owners buy and sell as they choose. The city did consider an invitation from the Y to move the homes to other locations, however the costs of that were too much for taxpayers to bear, since the price was multiple times what the homes were worth in value, and one needed substantial work inside to have any usefulness. There were no proposed re-uses for the homes and no funding help available. Wausau’s Finance committee denied funding the movement of the two homes. In light of that, we requested that the homes be photographed for the historic record, and after that, they were razed by the owner. In general, Wausau must protect and celebrate its history, however there are times where it is not feasible to save buildings at huge public expense when costs dramatically exceed any return on the investment or future value or use. Wausau saved one of the powerhouse buildings formerly located on the CVS Pharmacy site, and is building that structure into plans for a winter market on the south riverfront where all can enjoy the building. We are also working with Wisconsin Public Service to save the building on Clarks Island to re-use it as a possible historic site and maker space. Plans are ongoing for that.


Wausau policymakers can and should work with the Historic Preservation Commission to look at alternatives. On this particular issue, there is room for compromise. We’ve seen extensive alterations already on Athletic Park so we know there is room for balance between historic preservation and creating an environment that allows the facility to accommodate their needs now. Mr. McDonald has invested millions of dollars in the facility and substantially improved it as a community asset but there is definitely room to improve the process so policymakers can consider options.

Q: Let’s talk about Thomas St. In regard to the groundwater contamination in the Thomas St neighborhood. The DNR recently stated to Wauleco in a formal letter that an “off site pump and treat system would likely be effective at treating the dissolved phase groundwater plume which Wauleco is also responsible for addressing”. In order to reduce the burden to the residents of having components of the off site pump and treat groundwater system on their property, would you advocate for parts of the system to be placed on city owned property? 


This is certainly possible, however more details on the specifics of the system, costs and location would be needed before I could consider advocating and any such plan would need council approval. Clearly, I also want to see the Wauleco site cleaned up, but it is also important to make sure the responsible parties pay any parts they are mandated to pay and not just leave that to city taxpayers. I have worked hard to listen to the CCW group and residents of the area, but also want to be sure we follow the best process and get the right steps in the right order, which includes having accurate information and letting DNR complete their process so we know what will be required of Wauleco or any other responsible parties.


We need more information about what alternatives are available for off-site pumping and treatment before choosing one alternative over another. I want to see possible alternatives from experts and weigh the tradeoffs involved before ruling things in or out. If the city is in a position to be helpful with this, then we certainly want to explore those possibilities.