By Shereen Siewert
Members of the Wausau City Council on Tuesday repealed an ordinance that required the city to hold a referendum before implementing new revenue-generating fees.
Tuesday’s vote paves the way for the city to move forward with instituting fees for some services, such as garbage pickup, while lowering the tax levy for residents should they choose to do so.
Former Alderman Gary Gisselman spoke to the council at the start of Tuesday’s meeting with a reminder that the issue previously drew strong reaction from residents. In 2005, more than 2,000 residents signed a petition against instituting such fees without a referendum, Gisselman said, and the council established the ordinance in response. Then in 2015, the city placed two referendum questions on the ballot, one that asked whether the city should institute a fee for garbage pickup and the other for storm water management fees, removing the cost from the tax levy. In both cases, voters overwhelmingly opposed the move.
“I believe the people spoke twice on this,” Gisselman said. “I would think that would still weigh in on the discussion this evening. I think people may be feeling the same way.”
Lisa Rasmussen, who represents Dist. 7, advocated for the change, calling it a way to “level the playing field” for residents who now pay for services as part of the tax levy. For example, some residents pay hundreds of dollars for garbage service while others are paying less than $20, and all are receiving the same level of service with exactly the same size garbage tote. Rasmussen said that prior to the 2015 referendum, public hearings were not well-attended and many people misunderstood the potential effect the change could have.
“It was glaringly obvious to me that people didn’t understand this,” Rasmussen said of the 2015 referendum questions, adding that the move could save 48 cents on the mill rate. State legislation requires municipalities to reduce the tax levy when fees are added.
Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian was strongly opposed to the change, pointing to the large number of signatures on the initial petition and the failed referendum questions.
“I think the voice and the will of the people was overwhelmingly clear,” Kilian said. ” We are primarily here to represent the people and the people’s voice.”
Kilian suggested bringing the issue back to the voters in another referendum. Deb Ryan, who represents Dist. 11, said she too was uncomfortable taking a position that appeared to conflict with the will of the people.
“It’s a slippery slope when we don’t keep residents involved and telling them we’re going to repeal, we’re going to do what we want, without their input,” Ryan said. “I don’t want to forget them.”
Wausau Finance Director Maryanne Groat said that should the council choose to institute fees for services the break-even point would be a home valued at about $194,000. People with homes valued higher than that would save money, while people with lower-valued homes would pay more than they currently pay.
Kilian said the result would not only kneecap the democratic process but disproportionately impact lower-income residents.
“Anything raising the cost of services for the poor, working class and the middle class is completely off the table,” Kilian said.
But Rasmusssen reminded the council that Tuesday’s vote was not about garbage fees; rather, the issue at hand was changing policy to allow Wausau greater flexibility in the future. Dist. 1 Alderman Pat Peckham asked that Council President Becky McElhaney disallow any conversation about garbage fees during the discussion, but City Attorney Anne Jacobson said the garbage fee discussion was germane to the overall issue and should be allowed.
The move was approved by an 8-3 vote. Dist. 10 Alderman Lou Larson joined Kilian and Ryan as the three members who voted against the change.