By Keene Winters
It is time for us to hear from the Wausau City Council. By now, it should be clear that the mayor has no plans and no solutions—at least none that she is willing to share. But, we still have a city council that can study, craft and pass legislation.
Here are four steps that the Wausau Common Council could—and should—take before the end of August:
- Insist (by resolution if necessary) that staff complete an updated Summary of Debt Changes schedule, showing the city’s total debt.
- Insist that city staff comply with the municipal rule to post complete meeting packs no less than six day prior to the scheduled meeting.
- Launch a study to revisit combining Human Resource (HR) Departments with Marathon County before rushing to fill the vacant, city HR Director position.
- Place a referendum question on hiring a city administrator on the November ballot to maximize the number of voters who will weigh-in.
Working through the list in order, Wausau typically puts out a Summary of Debt Changes schedule twice per year. One is in October as part of the proposed city budget. The other usually comes in May or June ahead of the issuance of new debt. If you read this publication, you know the that the October 2021 version was missing material information and at odds with numbers in the city’s own Consolidated Annual Financial Report (CAFR). To date, no corrected version has been offered.
City debt is a big issue. Up until seven years ago, it had been routinely around $50 million in any given year. Now, it is likely around $225 million. Today, debt service payments are the second largest expense item in the city budget, behind the police department and ahead of the fire department and all other functions. If the proposed budget amendments pass this month, city debt could surpass $14,000 per household!
Shortly, the council is going to be asked to amend the city budget to borrow an estimated $6-10 million to finance the Swiderski riverfront development and another $7-14 million for the T. Wall Enterprises mall site development. The city also needs to come up with $16 million for upgrades to the new water treatment plant to address PFAS. Before votes on these measures are taken, the council—and their constituents—should have complete, accurate and up-to-date information about all of the city’s debts.
Next, we need to talk about transparency. It is neither transparent nor supportive of good decision-making to have reams of information dropped on council members with only 24-to-48 hours to read it. Meeting packets often exceed 100 pages, and the municipal rule is that those packet should be posted six days prior to the meeting.
More importantly, these big data dumps at the 11th hour foreclose public participation. Citizen have almost no chance to read the materials and contact their alderperson. The council should stop waving the six-day rule.
Now, we need to get some work out of the city HR Committee. Studies from a decade ago indicated that there was money to be saved by combining the city and county HR Departments. Take health insurance for example. Together, the city and the county should have enough employees to adopt the “Greenheck Model.” Greenheck has its own in-house clinic for routine medical services and only needs to purchase insurance for catastrophic health events. That model has been in place for nearly a decade. It has saved the company millions and boosted employee satisfaction. Really, it is worth a look before moving ahead on filling the HR Director position.
Finally, we have another human resource issue. The primary deficit in Wausau city government is and remains the lack of someone with the skills and experience to supervise, coordinate, train, coach and manage the professional development of the city’s department heads. These competing fiefdoms need to be molded into a cohesive work group. This problem affects performance, morale, turnover, productivity and a laundry list of things the HR Committee should be concerned about. Whether it is an administrator or something else, the HR Committee really needs to take-on this issue.
In sum, the council should not get a pass. They are responsible for providing leadership and solutions too. My alderperson is Rebecca McEhlaney. She is the council president and the chair of the HR Committee. She could put these items on an agenda for consideration any time she wishes. It would be great if she did. However, should she choose not to take up these constituent suggestions, the favor of a reply in this publication is requested.
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