By Peter Cameron for Wausau Pilot & Review

Four brown paper grocery bags full of bills.

That’s where all the documentation of the village of Brokaw’s millions in debt were when officials from the neighboring municipalities came to sort out the mess of the failing town, recalled former Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger, now retired.

“And I thought, ‘Oh boy,’” Karger said, with a groan.

Brad Karger, retired Marathon County Administrator

The bags were a blinking red warning of the village’s less-than-stellar management up until market forces essentially killed it.

The closing of Brokaw’s paper mill in 2012 — the economic backbone — buckled the town in debt and crumbling infrastructure. If allowed to fail, Brokaw would collapse onto its neighbors.

The closure, which eliminated 450 hourly and salaried jobs, left Brokaw essentially bankrupt, and was the first domino to fall in a chain of events that included legal action from Wausau and pushback from some residents wary of taking on Brokaw’s monumental debt.

State law says the debt of a dissolving municipality must go back to where it came from — in this case, Maine to the west.

That, for a variety of reasons, posed a huge threat to the 2,300 residents there.

“We had zero debt when we got Brokaw,” said Betty Hoenisch, president of the village of Maine. “In the blink of an eye, we got $4.3 million. No one would wish this on your worst enemy.”

The history of one big mess

In December 2015 Maine residents voted to incorporate to village status, a move that paved the way for a new boundary agreement to help Brokaw resolve its financial crisis.

The change from a town to a village allowed Maine to lock its borders and prevent other municipalities from annexing away land, said Maine Administrator Keith Rusch.

“The way we look at it, it protects our tax base,” he added.

After Maine began the process of absorbing Brokaw, the city of Wausau spent nearly nearly $200,000 fighting the plan. Maine spent $300,000 in legal fees to fight back, Hoenisch said. Wausau accused Maine of violating open meetings laws when planning the move. The lawsuit was filed in part to allow a handful of property owners to annex their land to Wausau after the vote was final.

In a separate lawsuit against the Department of Administration, Wausau also challenged the collective boundary agreement.

But after two long years, then-Wausau Mayor Rob Mielke announced the city was ending its long and costly legal battle with Maine.

Former Wausau Mayor Robert Mielke

A group of citizens also fought with Hoenisch and the rest of the Maine government on a variety of issues, including annexation by Wausau and the construction of a new well in Brokaw. Tom Gatzke, a 45-year-old trained engineer, ran against Hoenisch for village president in the spring, arguing the well was unneeded and a waste of taxpayers money. He and his allies fought the construction of the well through the Public Service Commission, slowing the process and costing Maine $300,000 in attorney fees, Hoenisch said.

But the new well project was approved and funded by the federal government, Hoenisch said, and badly needed because of the contamination in Brokaw from the mill and the crumbling infrastructure. 

“Everything was gone over with a fine-toothed comb,” she said. “You don’t get anything from the USDA without dotting your is and crossing your ts.”

Hoenisch defeated Gatzke in the spring, winning about 60% of the total vote. The other challengers to the village council also lost.

The road to recovery

How did little Maine pay down $4.3 million in debt while making needed infrastructure upgrades in the village formerly known as Brokaw?

With a lot of cooperation, and a lot of help from above.

“I thought the whole thing was gonna blow up,” Karger said, “but then they stopped including me, which was fine, and then the team from Maine and Texas started to work together.”

The town of Texas, to the east, also had much to lose if Brokaw dissolved without an agreement in place. By state law, Texas would have inherited Brokaw’s land east of the Wisconsin River, where the mill and much of the contamination and aging infrastructure sat, Rusch said.

Texas and Maine agreed to split the costs to keep Brokaw solvent until Maine took over, Rusch said. To pay for the debt and the needed upgrades, Hoenisch said she went to work writing grants and working with elected officials U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, and state Sen. Jerry Petrowski, a Republican.

Wisconsin Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) (Contributed photo)

“He’s been a real life jacket for us,” she said of Petrowski.

With help from those elected officials, Maine has been able to secure $7.3 million in federal and state funding to pay down the debt and make the infrastructure improvements, Hoenisch said.

The village board didn’t raise taxes on Maine residents, but they did have to sacrifice another way.

“A great success”

Now the initial debt of $4.3 million is down to a manageable $1.3 million, and the infrastructure upgrades are nearly complete, Rusch said.

The officials in Maine take pride in the fact that they didn’t have to significantly increase the village property tax rate of about $21 per $1,000 in property value.

“The goal from day one was to protect the taxpayers in the Town of Texas and the Town of Maine,” Rusch said. “At the end of the day, we did that.”

Instead, many infrastructure and maintenance projects in Maine — like repaving some roads — were put on hold for a few years until the Brokaw debt and infrastructure problems were under control, Rusch said. Those can resume again, he noted.

The new citizens of Maine, the former Brokaw residents, also got the added bonus of a lowered property tax rate. Brokaw’s rate was $45 per $1,000, so high because village officials had been left with few options to pay bills once the mill closed. Now those residents can enjoy Maine’s lower rate.

Karger called the outcome of the whole debacle “a great success.” All it took was a lot of coordination between Maine, Texas and Brokaw.

“Usually when you get three lawyers involved, you spend a lot of times arguing about something that doesn’t make much difference,” Karger said. “But what I was seeing from the sidelines was those guys rolling up their sleeves and coming up with some creative ideas and not trying to fight or over shine each other. They were trying to solve a problem.”

Rusch and Hoenisch credited Town of Texas Attorney Shane VanderWaal, Village of Maine Attorney Randy Frokjer and engineering firm Vierbicher and primary engineer Kurt Muchow for helping with the monumental task.

“It’s really rare for three municipalities to partner up and work for the common good for all,” Rusch said. “That’s something we can really be proud of.”

Peter Cameron writes for The Badger Project, a Wisconsin-based nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative journalism organization. He can be reached at pcameron@thebadgerproject.org.