I sincerely hope there was an intense discussion about (Wausau’s) mission among Wausau City Council members during their recent retreat, to re-emphasize the goal of all the decisions they make with our money.
My observations, while trying to actively engage with the council on numerous occasions over the past three years and under two administrations, have convinced me they need a stiff realignment of their priorities and decision-making process to get back in the lane that runs in the direction of this mission.
By breaking down the mission by its parts, one can begin to see this.
Our mission (city of Wausau)- In response to our citizens, we will provide services in the most effective and efficient manner in order to promote and enhance our living environment. Plan and encourage positive growth. Promote a positive community image by encouraging citizen involvement and civic pride.
“In response to our citizens.” I have yet to see more than a handful of regular people attend a council meeting, and all but four were white. Only department heads, consultants, big time developers and business leaders are asked to prepare official presentations for the council, including time for interactive questions and answers. The regular public gets 3 minutes to say whatever they want, with no interaction with the council, by rule. The few attempts to call for community input (ie. on ARPA funding) were, like all meetings, poorly advertised, held at inconvenient times, offering no childcare support for working families, and thus, meagerly attended.
Special task forces’ recommendations are received with virtually no discussion among the council- the Affordable Housing Task Force being the latest such anemic show of concern. Progressive sounding resolutions have been passed with no subsequent change in business as usual as they were meant to inspire. Moreover, of the few issues the public has been successful at winning, administrators repeatedly attempt to reverse, such as the finance director’s recent call for a citywide referendum to rezone the toxic site at Cleveland Avenue to allow a lower level of clean up after residents living around the site rallied to demand it be designated for the highest form of remediation … .”
“… we will provide services … in order to promote and enhance our living environment.” If services are determined in response to minimal citizen input, how is it then decided which services to pursue? The most common demands voiced by regular citizens who have attended have been for more affordable housing, a clean, safe environment and ending homelessness.
While we continue to hold our breath for the city to prioritize meeting such basic needs (3 years and running), we have been held captive to an ongoing and terribly expensive drama involving our tax money flowing to finance high-end development and foot dragging measures to delay vital clean up of environmental toxins (except for the effort to remove PFAS from city well water that had been known about for over 2 years prior to action, and then, only in response to a loud citizen outcry).
I don’t see how prioritizing these approaches has improved our living environment. In fact, 51 percent of Wausonians now live at or below the ALICE threshold of poverty. Wausau has the biggest disparity between rich and poor in the state. We have close to 600 people waiting for subsidized housing. Childcare costs more than college tuition. Our air contains the most CO2 emissions than anywhere else in our region, with 3M spewing the yearly equivalent of about 10,000 cars alone! Deciding to spend close to $1 million on light bulbs and bubblers with money meant to help support people dig out from the rampage of COVID is what we have come to expect from an administration that doesn’t stick to the mission. This amount alone could cover the expense of a tiny village for our unhoused residents.
“Plan and encourage positive growth.” I think an honest cost-benefit analysis of the Riverlife project is called for, including what services the millions of tax dollars did NOT support as a result of this diversion. I believe it would show that it has not been worth the cost of pervasive impoverishment, prolonged exposure to environmental toxins, and rise in housing insecurity that have resulted for the majority of Wausonians during the course of its development. I have yet to see such a formal cost-benefit analysis presented by the city to support further tax money being diverted from addressing basic needs into non-stop high end development.
“Promote a positive community image by encouraging citizen involvement and civic pride.” The image of Wausau as “the best small city in America” is a phrase I have only heard coming from the mouths of big developers and Chamber of Commerce representatives at council meetings. Their dream has been perpetuated by the actions of both previous and current administrations and councils to continue diverting our tax money away from basic need services, with no in-depth cost-benefit analysis of the real societal outcomes this 10 year long pet pork project has produced. Again, of the regular citizens who’ve I’ve witnessed speak to the council, none have asked for this project to continue. The positive image of Wausau which regular folks seemed to want to promote portrays a city government that prioritizes essential needs and takes care of all of its citizens.
Overall, based on my experience actively engaging (within strictly imposed limits) with the council of two administrations for over 3 years, I believe I speak with 51 percent of Wausonians by saying they have abandoned their self-stated mission. With the exception of one to two consistent (members), and up to four, depending on the issue, I have seen no attempt at self-correction under the leadership of either mayor.
A thriving living environment for all of us is not enhanced by fancy pedestrian bridges and choosing bubblers and light bulbs over affordable secure housing and a clean, safe environment. Homelessness is not ended by building high end retail and condos, or encouraging self-deportation through intensified police harassment and refusing to prioritize housing stability as a dedicated policy position.
A city engaged with its citizenry doesn’t conspire to reverse a demand they won to protect their neighborhood, seek to overturn a referendum or settle for essentially no public input into the decision-making process.
Despite being given many opportunities to correct course, the overriding momentum of Wausau City Council and administration continues to nurture business and an image of privilege over meeting basic needs of the majority of Wausonians. All the while in the background they wheel and deal to curry personal and political favor and power, some instances of which leak out, always inducing public scorn.
Only through direct, organized and intrepid action by the unity of impacted residents and social justice activists have I seen the council concede to the voices of regular folks who publicly challenge the make believe image. And it will only be through the persistence of such action that Wausau’s 51 percent will achieve their rightful status in the priority of the Wausau city government, guaranteeing a “mission accomplished”!
Bruce Grau, Northcentral Chapter of the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign, Wausau
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