By Shereen Siewert
City officials this week approved transferring $672,000 from the city’s environmental cleanup fund to finance street projects on Stewart Avenue and the city’s northwest side.
The funds will pay for asphalt overlay and concrete pavement repair in Tax Increment District 7. The money will be paid back to the environmental fund over two years.
The proposal was approved, but some council members said they were surprised to learn the city had a fund of roughly $1.5 million available to address environmental concerns, given that former Mayor Robert Mielke, in September 2019, told residents the requested environmental testing along the Thomas Street corridor and Riverside Park wasn’t feasible for budgetary reasons.
“From a fiscal sense, the money that is involved in this, I do not have it right now,” Mielke said in September.
But Kilian, a member of Citizens for a Clean Wausau who has since been elected to represent Dist. 3 on the Wausau City Council, is openly questioning why the environmental fund, which was originally created to address concerns at the now-repurposed Holtz Krause landfill site, was not brought forward as an option when neighborhood and park testing were first requested.
“It appears that there are two possibilities – either there was a major breakdown and disconnect in the information processes of municipal government, or the public was simply misled,” Kilian said. “Whichever it was, either possibility is unacceptable and the community has a right to know what occurred so that it does not happen again.”
Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen, who was council president when the testing request was made, defended Mielke’s response and said the city was under no mandate to test or remediate areas of the park at that time.
“At the time when Mayor Mielke discussed this issue in the Park & Rec committee, the original cost of the testing and the number of proposed locations were far more extensive than the testing plan we ended up with,” Rasmussen said. “At the time, his comments were meant to communicate that there was no money allocated in the budget for that purpose.”
The proposed testing estimates ranged from $36,000 to $71,000 and were proposed to address widespread concerns about potentially harmful dioxin and other chemicals in the soil throughout the neighborhood.
Rasmussen said council members are “usually aware that there are fund sources” that can be used to cover such directives and mandates. But the council was not asked to approve any funding until long after the discussions between the committee, CCW and the former mayor.
“Like any funding request, it arrived with a recommendation for how to pay for it, which we approved,” she said.
City Finance Director MaryAnne Groat said that when asked, she recommended any funding for the proposed environmental testing come from TID funds.
“The Environmental Fund was not discussed,” Groat said. “I believe that additional funding discussions would have occurred once it was determined the City was liable for clean up or the project was formalized.”
Dist. 10 Alder Lou Larson said he nearly “fell out of his chair” when he learned that a roughly $1.5 million fund existed for environmental purposes, given the long fight he and other residents had to secure testing for the area. Larson does not live in the affected area but does own property on Thomas Street, where a family member resides.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Groat explained that the fund was established to clean up pollution on the former Holtz Krause landfill site, but after 2015 the DNR gave the site a clean bill of health. That meant the fund no longer has any strings attached and is now sitting idle.
Kilian expressed dismay that the funds were not considered when residents spent several years fighting for environmental safety on the southwest side.
“Part of resolving the significant historical problems at City Hall – and some of the community’s mistrust of the political class there – is that under a new administration, and with multiple new alderpersons, we do not ignore those problems, but instead shine a light on them and fix them,” Kilian said.
The funding will be paid back at 2.5 percent interest over two years.