Opinion by Keene Winters

It is often said that the devil is in the details. That is wise advice.

Before the city council agrees to give Wausau Opportunity Zone (WOZ), LLC, $3.5 million to demolish the Wausau Center Mall, it should pay attention to those details and find out what lies underneath the mall.

One of those contractual details is an environmental hold harmless clause in the city’s existing agreement with WOZ. Back in February, the city agreed that if demolition ever occurred at the mall site it would pay for any and all remediation of environmental contamination that is found. Does anyone in city government understand the cost of that liability? It is doubtful. The city’s agreement with WOZ mentions a Phase I Environmental Assessment of the site, but no one in city government seems to have bothered to look at it.

Back in February, then-candidate Tom Killian, who is now the representative for Wausau City Council’s Dist. 3, filed an open records request to receive a copy of that document. To date, he is still waiting to share that information.

At first, Killian was told by the city clerk that no one in city government had a copy of the environmental assessment, so the city could not give it to him. When you think about it, that in itself was an astonishing revelation of incompetence. The city had conceded an environmental hold harmless clause in its contract with WOZ without the staff, then-mayor Robert Mielke, or the council looking into the liability. Killian persevered with his request, and a copy was eventually found in the office of the city’s outside attorneys.

Next he was told that the information could not be shared it because it might—just maybe—be covered by attorney-client privilege, and it will take time to check that out. Finally, this past week, he was given the okay to share it with the public. But, if he tries to send it to all of his colleagues on the council, he could be guilty of creating a walking quorum.

Clearly, the council and the public are really being poorly served by city staff. The fact that a simple document has been kept under wraps for seven months is a clear violation of the open records law. The legal standard to turn over items like this is no longer than 14 days! It is a staff function to keep track of important contract provisions and bring that information to the mayor and the council in a timely manner.

Moving forward with a vote on city funding for the demolition of the mall without addressing these issues is irresponsible. If the site contains potential trouble spots like an old print shop or dry cleaner, then a more detailed assessment is needed to estimate the city’s liability for clean-up. Should we not know what this is going to cost the taxpayers all-in before our elected officials leap to sign on the dotted line?

This is key; there is no reason for this proposal to be in the 2021 budget. We have been repeatedly told that it will not impact the tax levy. Instead, it will reportedly be financed by transferring existing dollars from one tax incremental financing district to another. As a practical matter, that can be done at any time during the year. Only items that impact the levy need to be in the budget.

I strongly urge the city council to table this proposal until they can read the environmental assessment, obtain a credible estimate of potential environmental clean-up costs and present the public with a plan to pay them. It is the only responsible course of action at this point.

Keene Winters is a financial advisor who served two terms on the Wausau City Council from April 2012 to April 2016. (Photo credit: Life Touch)

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